In the context of a series of interviews for Pressenza agency with MEPs from the European parties who vote in the European Parliament for the abolition of patents for vaccines, pharmaceuticals, and diagnostics related to the pandemic, we discuss with Dimitris Papirodimoulis, member of the Euro-left group [GUE / NGL] and Vice-President of the European Parliament.
Interview with Marianella Kloka.
How easy was it to get the result of this voting result?
It was not easy at all: it took many months of work. We started from the beginning of the pandemic, last Spring. The whole Euro-left has set itself the goal of making the expected vaccine a public good and lifting the patent protection regime, as happened several years ago in the case of HIV / AIDS. It took time, arguments, meetings, communication with groups of citizens, scientists, to build a broader consensus. This led to the adoption of the amendment of the Euro-left group last Wednesday and the adoption of the resolution containing this amendment by a large majority. The amendment was passed because it was supported by three political groups, the left, the socialists and the greens, as well as individual MEPs from the center-right and right-wing political groups. We won a battle; we did not win the war.
Does this resolution oblige the European Commission to take any action?
The European Parliament has no legal power on this issue. We are just adding political pressure. The Commission is not only under pressure from the European Parliament but also from the reality itself. It has a low rate of vaccination of its citizens compared to the United Kingdom and the United States. So under pressure from both the European Parliament and the reality, just a few days ago, the Commission promised to unveil a new plan that would speed up vaccine production and therefore vaccination. The key is to increase the pressure of the citizens themselves on the leading elites and on the Commission. All polls conducted in EU countries show that the majority of public opinion supports the lifting of the patent protection regime, temporarily and specifically for the case we are facing. People understand what all the experts and the WHO say: if we do not tame the pandemic, the economy will not recover.
What comes next?
We will discuss this new vaccination strategy in plenary in June and there will be a resolution again. Our main arguments are that the first priority at the moment is to accelerate the production of vaccines and therefore the rate of vaccinations. To do this, the temporary lifting of the patent protection regime is a key tool, because otherwise the poorest areas of the world, which are undervaccinated, are becoming laboratories for aggressive coronavirus mutation. This poses a huge risk of re-emerging the pandemic even in the richest areas that have a much better rate of vaccination, such as the United States, Great Britain and Europe. It also poses a risk not only to public health but also to the economy and social cohesion. The only ones who benefit from such a scenario are the big pharmaceutical companies. And here there is something else that is paradoxical, not to say unfair and immoral. We all know that these vaccines, which were produced in record time – and we must acknowledge this success to scientists – were produced with ample public funding. It is not possible to continue by accepting that biotechnology produced with abundant public funding should be protected by exclusive private rights. Even the eighty-year-old Joe Biden says that, which I do not think anyone considers an extremist.
Some powerful leaders within the EU have publicly opposed Biden’s proposal. Are democratic processes within the European Parliament a response to these statements?
Unfortunately, the European leadership was weighed, measured, and found to be incomplete. Its inadequacy is tragic. Mrs. Merkel rushed to say “NO” to Biden’s proposal and Mrs. Ursula von de Layen immediately changed her statement that the Commission is open to discuss with the USA. Unfortunately, economic interests also those views of the European leaders. The lobbies of the big pharmaceutical companies are powerful, they invest a lot of money in Brussels and they bombard us with the arguments of the companies, which they use a lot of public money to make huge profits. Mrs. Merkel’s arguments are a copy and paste version of the pharmacy lobby’s arguments. The reason is simple: BioNTech was a small and medium-sized pharmaceutical company. Following the discovery of the m-RNA vaccine, its market value has skyrocketed to over € 30 billion, and is now higher than Deutsche Bank’s. And because it is based in Germany, that explains Mrs. Merkel’s “NO”. The point is, the larger US-based Pfizer has not stopped Joe Biden to talk about the patents. But Biden’s policy is better also in terms of the amount and extent of fiscal intervention for economic recovery and concerning wage increases too. The European Parliament will continue to push the European Commission and governments to take the side of the people. This is not just something that concerns Europe and the United States. At the World Trade Organization, there has been an initiative [WAIVER] under the auspices of two states, India and South Africa, for months now, concerning the temporary lifting of patent protection, which has already gathered the support of more than 100 countries, even before Biden’s statements. This means that, after a negotiation that will include both economic and commercial aspects, we could more than double the production of vaccines in the coming months, and therefore more than double the rate of vaccination. At present, only 40% of the production capacity globally is used for the production of vaccines.
How does the pharmaceutical lobby work?
I am not one of the MEPs approached by such lobbies. But I can tell you that according to official figures, there are 20,000 official lobbyists in Brussels, in addition to the unofficial ones. There are the so-called good lobbies, which are usually poor, in the majority of activists fighting for the protection of the environment and human rights. There are also the “hard”, expensive and well-paid lobbies, of the multinationals of medicine, of the companies that produce military equipment, of the automobile industry, of the chemical industry, of the food industry, of the digital giants that do not pay taxes and even win lawsuits against Commission, as was the case with amazon. These represent terribly lucrative businesses and therefore they invest a lot of money to support their interests. This means well-paid networks of public relations, communication, creating political influence through the media, through building friendly ties with members of the European Parliament. Through the position of Vice-President that I have held for the last seven years, I have seen fellow MEPs, who are usually not very diligent or active in the committees, when there are discussions on agendas of powerful lobbies they are actively present, with excellent speeches, extremely elaborate amendments, which “happen” to coincide with what those lobbies are bombarding us. It’s a big research topic, I urge journalists who truly serve their profession to address this issue diligently.
The argument of the pharmaceutical lobby is that it takes time to safely integrate a larger percentage of the world’s productive potential to vaccine’s manufacturing.
We have not made a deal with anyone that this pandemic will be the last. We must use all available tools to deal with the aggressive mutations of the existing virus and any subsequent pandemics. The discovery of m-RNA is not just about this batch of vaccines but also a new generation of vaccines and treatments that can be based on this technology. It takes a mapping of economic data so that those who discovered the technology also have a financial benefit but also a strong political will and insight into the use of this technology for the common good. As long as this is delayed, the economic and health damage to the planet is much higher than the cost of temporarily lifting the patent protection regime.