COLOGNE: People queue for vaccinations outside of the Central Mosque in Cologne, western yesterday. – AFP

PORTO, Portugal: Europe yesterday passed the ball back to Washington in a debate over COVID vaccine patents, pushing the US for a concrete proposal and a commitment to export much-needed jabs. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking after a summit of EU and Indian leaders, said the EU had exported much of its own production and that America should follow suit.

“Now that a further part of the American population has been vaccinated, I hope that we can come to a free exchange of components and an opening of the market for vaccines,” she said. European Council chief Charles Michel said the bloc was ready to discuss a US offer to suspend patent protection on vaccines-once the details are clear. “We are ready to engage on this topic, as soon as a concrete proposal would be put on the table,” Michel said at an EU summit in Portugal that discussed that subject, among others.

He added that the EU had doubts about the idea being a “magic bullet” in the short term and encouraged “all the partners to facilitate the export of doses.” France’s skepticism was plain, with President Emmanuel Macron declaring “patents are not the priority”. A debate on the issue could be “a very good idea,” Macron suggested, but he added: “I call very clearly on the United States to put an end to export bans not only on vaccines but on vaccine ingredients, which prevent production.

Italy’s prime minister, Mario Draghi, echoed that. “Before getting to the liberalization of vaccines, other simpler things should be done, such as removing the export block that today the US firstly and the UK continue to maintain,” he said. “This, I would say, is the first thing to do,” he said. While at the summit, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a contract with drugs giant Pfizer/BioNTech for up to 1.8 billion doses of their patented vaccine had been concluded.

Influential voices support the push to waive patents, not least that of Pope Francis, who criticized putting “the laws of the market or intellectual property above the laws of love and the health of humanity”. The Pope expressed his backing for “universal access to the vaccine and the temporary suspension of intellectual property rights”, condemning the “virus of individualism” that “makes us indifferent to the suffering of others”. “A variant of this virus is closed nationalism, which prevents, for example, an internationalism of vaccines,” he said.

The World Health Organization, India and South Africa have all called for patents to be temporarily suspended. Meanwhile, new COVID-19 deaths surged past 4,000 for the first time in India yesterday in one of the world’s worst outbreaks, as the pope called for patent waivers to “allow universal access to the vaccine.” The call for waivers has gained momentum after the United States announced its surprise support for such a scheme to enable adequate vaccine supplies to fight the raging pandemic.

India now accounts for nearly half of the world’s new known cases according to an AFP database, and it reported a national record 4,187 new deaths yesterday. New Delhi has struggled to contain the outbreak, which has overwhelmed its healthcare system and sparked public anger over mismanagement. “The government says that there is ample supply of medicines and oxygen,” said Brijesh Pandey, who spends hours every day jostling with others to try to secure oxygen for his brother-in-law.

“But look how hundreds of desperate people are struggling to save their brothers, sisters and parents.” The surge has spilled into next-door Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. “Another variant is when we put the laws of the market or intellectual property above the laws of love and the health of humanity.” The global arsenal against the coronavirus expanded as the vaccine from China’s Sinopharm became the first fully non-Western shot to get the green light from the World Health Organization.

The WHO has already given emergency use authorization to vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca, a status that paves the way for countries to quickly approve and import shots. Sinopharm is already in use in 42 territories around the world, including Pakistan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Serbia. – AFP