Mabion

The EU’s response to challenges to its actions on COVID-19 vaccine exports

At the WTO General Council meeting held on March 1-2 this week, agenda item 9 was aimed at the European Union. The agenda item, entitled “Call to Prevent Export Restrictions on COVID-19,” was put on the agenda by Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama and Paraguay. I had reviewed this agenda item as one of 16 agenda items that was likely to draw a fair amount of attention. See February 26, 2021, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s first week on the job starts with a two day General Council meeting, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/02/26/wto-director-general-ngozi-okonjo-iwealas-first-week-on-the-job-starts-with-a-two-day-general-council-meeting/ (Agenda item 9 was added by Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama and Paraguay reflecting concerns by them (and presumably many other trading partners) about actions taken by the European Union to exert control over exports of vaccines from the EU in light of EU concerns about its own access to vaccines from manufacturers. See CALL TO PREVENT EXPORT RESTRICTIONS ON COVID-19 VACCINES, WT/GC/818 (18 February 2021)).

The new Director-General, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has stressed the importance of the WTO doing more to address the COVID-19 pandemic and help Members recover. Equitable and affordable access to vaccines is an issue of importance to the membership and stressed by the Director-General. See, e.g., March 3, 2021, WTO Director-General opinion piece in the Financial Times and recent actions by the U.S., https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/03/03/wto-director-general-opinion-piece-in-the-financial-times-and-recent-actions-by-the-u-s/; March 1, 2021, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s opening statement at the March 1 General Council meeting, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/03/01/wto-director-general-ngozi-okonjo-iwealas-opening-statement-at-the-march-1-general-council-meeting/

While the EU Ambassador provided comments on various agenda items, agenda item 9 was obviously one of importance to the EU. See EU Statement at the General Council of 2 March 2021 on the “Call to Prevent Export Restrictions on Covid-19Vaccines,” 02 March 2021, https://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/world-trade-organization-wto/94083/eu-statement-general-council-2-march-2021-%E2%80%9Ccall-prevent-export-restrictions-covid-19-vaccines%E2%80%9D_en. EU Ambassador João Aguiar Machado provided a detailed justification for the EU actions in imposing an export licensing/authorization regime on COVID-19 vaccines claiming lack of transparency by pharmaceutical companies and the need to ensure “fair” distribution. The EU program does not affect vaccines for COVAX low- and middle-income countries nor for various neighboring countries. Of note, for countries covered by the export licensing/authorization scheme, there have been 150 export requests all of which have been granted. The statement is embedded below.

EU-Statement-at-the-General-Council-of-2-March-2021-on-the-Call-to-Prevent-Export-Restrictions-on-Covid-19-Vaccines-–-02-March-2021-European-External-Action-Service

The EU stressed that the major problem facing the world was global capacity far below global demand. The EU is working to identify production bottlenecks and to encourage producers to license their products to maximize global production and expressed a willingness to work with other WTO Members and with the Director-General. The part of the statement covering the demand/supply imbalance is copied below.

“However, the root causes of the problem lie elsewhere: the exploding global demand is well above the global production today. As long as this global industrial challenge is not met, and the world population is not vaccinated quickly enough, we will all face a risk of a continuing health emergency including new Covid-19 variants and a prolonged economic crisis.

“The European Union believes there is an important role for public authorities to play and to drive the increase of production, and to facilitate access to the vaccines and other treatments that are in need today. Cooperation must be promoted amongst the different participants along the value chains where necessary to enhance production capacities. A closer, more integrated and more strategic public-private cooperation with the industry is needed. In this spirit, the EU has set-up a Task Force for Industrial Scale-up of COVID-19 vaccines to detect and help respond to issues in real-time. In order to ramp up production, we will, amongst others, work closely with manufacturers to help monitor supply chains and address identified production bottlenecks. Since EU vaccine production is critical for global supply, the benefits of this initiative will extend beyond the EU’s borders.

“Scaling-up of production on a global level requires further actions. It will not happen without increased global collaboration with the pharmaceutical industry, which should facilitate the transfer of the right know-how and technology for the highly complex vaccine production process. We should facilitate this collaboration, while also recognising that intellectual property provides the necessary platform for it to take place. Waiving intellectual property rights would disrupt this collaboration and the transfer of know-how. In conclusion, Mr Chairman, we believe it is legitimate to engage the sector in order to ensure that all complementary production facilities across companies and continents are actively contributing to ramp up production. Companies that have tried and failed to develop a vaccine of their own, for example, should actively consider making their facilities available for the production of vaccines of successful companies. Companies with new vaccines should consider whether they have checked all options for licensing agreements to increase production. The objective should be to ensure they enter into licence agreements with companies around the world that have the necessary production capacities and could export the vaccines to any low middle-income countries without production capacities. At the same time, we should be mindful that the manufacturing campaigns for covid-19 vaccines do not crowd out the production of other life-saving vaccines and therapeutics.

“The EU, working together with other WTO Members and under the leadership of the Director-General Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is ready to facilitate a dialogue between the vaccine developers and companies with the production facilities that are ready to step in to help out with the production of vaccines and their delivery to the countries in need. We welcome the DG’s proposal to focus on collaboration among companies to enhance licensing in order to use all the adequate manufacturing capacity, including in developing countries. The EU is ready to facilitate this dialogue and contribute to the efforts on expanding these partnerships.

“The EU remains open to a dialogue with all WTO Members on how to facilitate the collaboration with the pharmaceutical industry on the transfer of know-how and technology. In the same manner, the EU remains open to a dialogue on how to facilitate the use of the TRIPS flexibilities, should the voluntary solutions fail or not be available. The flexibilities offered by the TRIPs Agreement are absolutely legitimate tools for Members in need, as many are in the midst of this pandemic. This includes fast track compulsory licences for export to countries without manufacturing capacity. Administrative burdens should not stand in the way of manufacturing and delivering vaccines to where they are needed.

“We believe that a successful contribution of the WTO to the current pandemic will require all WTO Members to agree on actions that will not only encompass the elements enshrined in the Ottawa Group’s proposal on Trade and Health, such as export restrictions or transparency, but also address the problem of insufficient manufacturing capacity. The EU stands ready to engage in such a dialogue.”

In my post yesterday, I reviewed some of the efforts that have already occurred where pharmaceutical companies are working with other companies to expand production and availability worldwide. See March 3, 2021:  WTO Director-General opinion piece in the Financial Times and recent actions by the U.S., https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/03/03/wto-director-general-opinion-piece-in-the-financial-times-and-recent-actions-by-the-u-s/. But the articles referenced yesterday are just some of the collaborations going on as manufacturers with existing capacity work with companies with COVID-19 vaccines to help expand capacity and production and vaccine manufacturers work with contract producers to expand supply chain capabilities. An additional cooperation agreement was announced today in the press. In addition, some governments, including the U.S. and EU have also worked with manufacturers to ramp up production. See, e.g., Wall Street Journal, Novartis to Help Make CureVac Covid-19 Vaccine, March 4, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/novartis-to-help-make-curevac-covid-19-vaccine-11614859271; Reuters, Poland strikes deal to produce Novavax COVID-19 vaccine, March 3, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-poland-mabion/poland-strikes-deal-to-produce-novavax-covid-19-vaccine-idUSKBN2AV19O (“Polish biotech firm Mabion has signed a preliminary agreement to manufacture Novavax’s COVID-19 vaccine with financial support from a state-run fund, as the government strives to accelerate its vaccination programme.”); PMLive, Novartis, Bayer announce separate agreements to bolster COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing, February 1, 2021, http://www.pmlive.com/pharma_news/novartis,_bayer_announce_separate_agreements_to_bolster_covid-19_vaccine_manufacturing_1362454#:~:text=Novartis%20and%20Bayer%20have%20announced,vaccine%20and%20CureVac’s%20vaccine%2C%20respectively.&text=Novartis%20will%20aim%20to%20begin,its%20site%20in%20Stein%2C%20Switzerland (“Novartis and Bayer have announced separate agreements to aid the manufacturing of Pfizer/BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine and CureVac’s vaccine, respectively.”); Pharmaceutical Technology, Pharmaceutical Technology-02-01-2021, Volume 2021
Supplement, Issue 1, Contract Service Tapped to Produce COVID-19 Vaccines, Page Number: s29-s30, https://www.pharmtech.com/view/contract-service-tapped-to-produce-covid-19-vaccines (reviewing actions by Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, Novavax). Expanding supply also requires vaccines being approved by governments for use. The EU recently announced it was beginning review of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V. See The Globe and Mail, Europe starts review of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine to try to overcome shortages as new variants appear, March 4, 2021, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/world/article-europe-starts-review-of-russias-sputnik-v-vaccine-to-try-to-overcome/. And, of course, major producers are expanding where they are producing their vaccines using existing or new facilities. See, e.g., The Globe and Mail, Novavax publishes COVID-19 vaccine contract with Canada, March 4, 2021, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-novavax-publishes-covid-19-vaccine-contract-with-canada/ (“American pharmaceutical company Novavax has published its vaccine agreement with Canada for 52 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine. The company expects to eventually produce some of the vaccine in Canada.”).

Thus, a great deal is going on to expand production capacity globally. Strong intellectual property laws are critical to the developments and resource commitments being made. While many developing countries are pushing to start a process of text drafting for a TRIPS waiver at the WTO, such an effort would be counterproductive to global health needs over the longer term. Washington Trade Daily’s March 2, 2021 edition at pages 5-7 has an article entitled “Call for TRIPS Waiver Negotiations” which presents the views of largely developing countries on the desire to move to negotiating text even though there is not agreement on the proposed waiver. See Washington Trade Daily, March 2, 2021, https://files.constantcontact.com/ef5f8ffe501/ed93e180-7dee-4beb-8629-0e73d4d0ea5c.pdf.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a statement on March 2nd characterizing the effort for a TRIPS waiver being promoted by India, South Africa and others as “misguided”. See U.S. Chamber, U.S. Chamber Statement on Proposed WTO IP Rights Waiver, March 2, 2021, https://www.uschamber.com/press-release/us-chamber-statement-proposed-wto-ip-rights-waiver. The statement is copied below (emphasis added to the third paragraph).

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Innovation Policy Center (GIPC) issued the following statement from Senior Vice President Patrick Kilbride regarding the World Trade Organization (WTO) General Council’s discussion of a proposed waiver of intellectual property (IP) commitments in the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement. 
 
“‘Vaccine distribution is critical for ending the pandemic and reviving the global economy. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce welcomes the WTO General Council’s discussion of the role of intellectual property rights in defeating the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time, transparent and predictable intellectual property rights have formed the legal and economic basis for an unprecedented level of highly successful collaborations between government, industry, academia and NGOs. 
 
“‘The Chamber supports decisive and bold action to remove regulatory and trade barriers in order to boost the global distribution of treatments and vaccines, including support of global vaccine programs such as COVAX. Proposals to waive intellectual property rights are misguided and a distraction from the real work of reinforcing supply chains and assisting countries to procure, distribute and administer vaccines to billions of the world’s citizens. Diminishing intellectual property rights would make it more difficult to quickly develop and distribute vaccines or treatments in the future pandemics the world will face.  
 
“’The ‘3rd Way’ proposed by incoming WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to encourage licensing agreements is worthy of further discussion and consistent with the ongoing success of government-industry efforts to bring an end to COVID-19 as rapidly and as safely as possible.’”

Conclusion 

While there has been a lot of concern among trading partners about the EU action in imposing export licensing of COVID-19 vaccines, to date the licensing system does not appear to have caused problems in fact in the distribution of doses ordered by the group of countries covered by the new system. Moreover, with or without government encouragement, vaccine producers have been working to expand production through arrangements with other vaccine producers, through working with contract manufacturers, and by expanding facilities and internal capacities.

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic presents a once in a century global health pandemic with demand at the beginning far outstripping supply. Governments have a role to play working with producers, suppliers, those involved in distribution and applying the vaccines to address bottlenecks, to provide encouragement and incentives to rapidly expand production and to support the efforts of the WHO, GAVI, CEPI, and UNICEF to fund the needs of COVAX. While concerns in the early days of vaccine rollout are understandable, COVAX has contracts with a number of vaccine producers and others under negotiation or awaiting approval. AstraZeneca, the first vaccine producer with a contract to supply COVAX put out a press release on March 2, 2021 which is copied in part below. See AstraZeneca, AstraZeneca advances mass global rollout of COVID-19 vaccine through COVAX, March 2, 2021, https://www.astrazeneca.com/media-centre/press-releases/2021/astrazeneca-advances-mass-global-rollout-of-covid-19-vaccine-through-covax.html.

Supply to 142 countries underway as part of the unprecedented effort to bring
broad and equitable access to the vaccine

“AstraZeneca with its partner Serum Institute of India
will be the biggest initial supplier to COVAX
 

“The first of many millions of doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine have begun arriving in low and middle-income countries across the world through the multilateral COVAX initiative, the first steps in fulfilling the Company’s efforts to provide broad and equitable access to the vaccine.

“First COVAX shipments were dispatched late last week to Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire, and more are due to begin arriving this week in countries including the Philippines, Indonesia, Fiji, Mongolia and Moldova. This supply represents the first COVID-19 vaccine for many of these countries.

“Further shipments will arrive in the coming weeks with the aim of supplying a total of 142 countries with hundreds of millions of doses of the vaccine in the coming months. The majority of these doses, manufactured by AstraZeneca and its licence partner Serum Institute of India, will go to low and middle-income countries.

“Pascal Soriot, Chief Executive Officer, Astra Zeneca, said: ‘These first steps towards fulfilling our broad, equitable and no-profit emergency response to the pandemic mean millions of people, irrespective of their country’s income level, will soon be protected against this deadly virus. This is a moment of great pride for us at AstraZeneca and I am extremely grateful to our partners including Gavi, CEPI and Oxford University for their hard work and dedication in order to make this humanitarian ideal a reality for many millions of people around the world.’

“Seth Berkley, Chief Executive Officer, Gavi, said: ‘Global, equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines is only possible when the public and private sectors work together. When we launched the Gavi COVAX Advance Market Commitment in June 2020, our first Agreement was with AstraZeneca. Nine months later, the first doses are already being delivered to those that need them most. This is the beginning of COVAX’s effort to end the acute phase of the pandemic, not the end, but we can all take strength from this moment and I thank AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford for their support and partnership at every step of our journey.’

“Vaccine shipments have been allocated according to the COVAX Allocation Framework which determines volume per participating country based on a number of factors, including country readiness, national regulatory authorisations and national vaccination plans in place. The supply through COVAX follows the recent Emergency Use Listing by the World Health Organization (WHO) for active immunisation in individuals 18 years of age and older, which provides a vital and accelerated pathway to enable supply.

“AstraZeneca was the first global pharmaceutical company to join COVAX in June 2020 in line with the Company’s shared commitment to global, equitable access to vaccines.

“The vaccine can be stored, transported and handled at normal refrigerated conditions (2-8 degrees Celsius/36-46 degrees Fahrenheit) for at least six months and administered within existing healthcare settings.”

The “third way” sought by the WTO Director-General has been underway for some time and is picking up speed as vaccines start to be approved. There are an increasing number of announced agreements among producers to work together to expand production of particular vaccines. Thus, collaboration and cooperation among producers has and is occurring. Governments can help by identifying bottlenecks in all areas relevant to raw materials, intermediate products, finished vaccine doses, distribution and resources to apply the vaccines and helping to resolve the bottlenecks; by encouraging increased ramp ups of capacity and production, including through licensing.

A broad waiver of TRIPS obligations as being pursued by India, South Africa and many other developing and least developed countries is unwise, unlikely to be agreed to, and if implemented, will backfire in terms of global cooperation in getting the world’s population vaccinated and will destroy the likelihood of private sector engagement to solve future pandemics. The EU’s approach as laid out in EU Ambassador João Aguiar Machado’s statement on March 2 is likely the best course forward whether through the WTO or otherwise.