Martin cautious about EU waiving Covid-19 vaccine patents globally

Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Photo: Julien Behal Photography/PA

Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Photo: Julien Behal Photography/PA

John Downing

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has taken a cautious stance on the prospect of the EU globally waiving patents on Covid-19 vaccine technology in an effort to boost supplies to poorer countries.

US President Joe Biden has delivered an effective challenge to the European Union by endorsing the patent waiver idea which has been submitted to the World Trade Organisation by India and South Africa.

Publicly, many EU leaders have said they will consider the idea but others – including the Taoiseach – favour other measures like licensing the vaccine manufacture to poorer states to ensure they would also get the necessary expertise to make the jabs.

Mr Martin is in the Portuguese city of Porto for his first face-to-face meeting with EU leaders since last December as Covid-19 restricted these summits to online links.

Not all the leaders travelled for the two-day meeting which concludes today, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel was among those who opted to attend this summit via video.

Discussions yesterday focused on EU social policies for a post-Covid world with pledges to get 78pc of citizens in employment by 2030, lift 15 million people out of poverty, and ensure 60pc of workers get training and upskilling every single year.

During these discussions, Mr Martin cited the success of the Collison brothers and said these were the kind of innovative entrepreneurs Europe needed right now.

Last night, over a working dinner, the leaders resumed discussions about vaccines, the prospect of agreement on “Covid green certificates” by June to allow EU citizens to resume travel, and easing of non-essential travel from countries outside the EU.

They also broached the suggested move of waiving patents to help a more global distribution of the vaccines.

Sources close to these discussions said Mr Martin would “listen carefully and keep an open mind” but they also suggested the Taoiseach envisaged difficulties.

“Agreeing a waiver would take time and it would be a worry for Ireland,” the source said.

Brussels officials said Mr Martin was among a number of leaders who felt a fair licensing system would be more beneficial as it would also offer the know-how to effectively and safely manufacture the vaccines in poorer countries.

Others, led by French President Emmanuel Macron, pointedly said the US could do more to improve vaccine flows to poorer countries by ending its impediments to vaccine exports.

The French president sought to turn the tables on Mr Biden by accusing “Anglo-Saxon” countries of hindering global supplies of the life-saving jabs – in a direct jibe at both London and Washington.

President Macron said discussions about intellectual property were a sideshow compared to existing barriers to vaccine exports and he urged voluntary schemes to share supplies with poorer countries.

Mr Macron said the US could also help by ensuring greater flows of vaccine ingredients.

“Today 100pc of vaccines produced in the United States are for the American market,” President Macron said.

He added that waiving patents would not resolve other difficulties.

“You can give the intellectual property to laboratories that do not know how to produce it. They won’t produce it tomorrow,” the French president added.

Other officials pointed to a comment by EU Commisson President Ursula von der Leyen, who had pointed out that so far the EU had distributed about 200 million vaccine doses globally.

This was almost equivalent to the numbers distributed within the EU itself.

Today, the leaders will take part in an unprecedented meeting, via videoconference, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. All agree India needs more help amid a huge virus surge and they will also talk about a trade deal.

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