The European Parliament approved by 293 votes to 284 an amendment in which “the EU is invited to support the initiative presented by India and South Africa at the World Trade Organisation, which calls for a temporary suspension of intellectual property rights on vaccines, equipment and therapies to combat COVID-19.
We spoke to Manon Aubry, a member of the GUE/NGL group, who has long been fighting for vaccine freedom in the European Parliament.
Yesterday’s vote broke the pro-multinational front. What is your opinion and feeling?
The vote on our amendment clearly calling for support for the Indian and South African proposal at the WTO is a great victory against the big pharma lobbies. It is the result of a relentless fight we have been waging for months in the European Parliament (where we were initially alone) alongside NGOs and citizens. We can now say that the European Parliament is officially on the side of lifting patents on vaccines: this puts additional pressure on the Commission, the Council and the Member States. They will no longer be able to shirk their responsibilities: do they want to be the only ones in the world to block what would allow us to get out of the shortage and vaccinate the whole planet to protect the profits of a few shareholders?
What are the next steps, in and out of parliament?
There is a lot of hypocrisy in the European institutions and governments on the issue of patent removal. Biden’s surprise reversal forced Macron to backtrack on the issue, saying he was “very much in favour” even though he had always voted against it at the WTO and his group in the National Assembly and the European Parliament. But Merkel immediately reacted to mark her firm opposition to any questioning of patents and since then, it is not clear what France’s position is. Our objective today is twofold. Firstly, to continue to put pressure on the European Parliament, which will vote on a specific resolution on the subject in June to force the Commission and the Council to adopt a clear position at the next WTO meetings. And then broaden the subject so that the debate on the Covid vaccine patents becomes a precedent in the future: global health cannot be considered as a market when millions of lives are at stake!
Within the noprofitonpandemic movement there have been different reactions to Biden’s statements. What is your feeling about this?
We are not fooled: Biden did not become overnight a great revolutionary who wants to prevent any profit on the pandemic and create public drug poles! We must see Biden’s change of heart as an opportunity to be seized and this is what we have done successfully in the European Parliament. However, we must be wary: we want an immediate, complete and lasting lifting of patents on vaccines, not a compromise on the cheap. And we also want a fair sharing of the necessary raw materials as well as compulsory technology and know-how transfers from the big companies. These measures are not in conflict with each other, as the EU claims: on the contrary, they complement each other! This is how we will be able to mobilise all the world’s production capacities that remain unused today.
Time is running out. We hope to succeed in making vaccines available to the countries that need them most?
A year has been lost by refusing to organise from the outset to think of vaccination as a global issue and the vaccine as a common good of humanity. We are now paying a high price with countries ravaged by the pandemic and the emergence of new variants. The European Union is directly responsible for this impasse and we will continue to call for a Commission of Inquiry to hold its leaders to account. But it is not too late to react and change policy. If we get the patents lifted and the mandatory technology transfers, we can expect new production lines within months. We don’t have a second to lose because inaction kills. At least 15 to 20 billion doses are needed next year, maybe more if regular or variant-adapted boosters are needed. It can still be done, but we need to start now and stop waiting politely for big pharma to do it.
The pandemic is overshadowing many other social emergencies. What needs to be worked on in the coming months?
The pandemic is an unprecedented event in recent history and has taken everyone by surprise. It is normal that the health crisis has taken centre stage for a year but it is now time to talk about the fourth wave which is and will be social. Poverty is exploding across Europe. Young people are queuing up in soup kitchens. Self-employed people have accumulated debts and risk bankruptcy overnight. The situation is extremely serious and calls for immediate emergency measures. First of all, we need to restore our budgetary room for manoeuvre: cancel the public debts held by the European Central Bank and introduce taxes on the profiteers of the crisis, both billionaires and multinationals. This would make it possible to finance the social component of the recovery plan, which the European Union has totally ignored! If Biden can do it in the US, we can do it in Europe.