EU Calls for WTO Action To Expand Access for COVID-19 Vaccines

By Miranda Greenberg -

June 10, 2021

The European Union (EU) has submitted its proposal seeking the commitment of World Trade Organization (WTO) members for a multilateral trade action plan to expand the production of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments and ensure universal and fair access.

With this proposal to the WTO, divided in two communications, the EU underlines the WTO's central role in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and urges fellow WTO members to agree on a set of commitments, including on intellectual property rights.

The EU is calling on governments to: (1) ensure that COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and their components can cross borders freely; (2) encourage producers to expand their production, while ensuring that those countries most in need of vaccines receive them at an affordable price; and (3) facilitate the use of compulsory licensing within the WTO's existing agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). The TRIPS Agreement already provides this flexibility.

Export and borders

First, the EU is aiming to limit the use of export restrictions and keep supply chains open. The European Commission (EC) says vaccine-producing countries should be ready to export a fair share of their domestic production.

In addition, the EU considers that supplies to the COVAX Facility, a global initiative for equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, should never be restricted, and no measures should limit trade in inputs necessary for the production of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. 

Manufacturing and supply

Additionally, the EU is calling for governments to encourage and support vaccine manufacturers and developers to expand production and ensure the affordable supply of vaccines to low- and middle-income countries. Such actions could include licensing agreements, the sharing of expertise, tiered pricing (including non-profit sales to low-income countries), contract manufacturing and new investments in manufacturing facilities in developing countries.

The EU says it expects all vaccine producers and developers to make concrete pledges that increase supplies to vulnerable developing countries. In this regard, the EU recognized the commitment of companies, such as Pfizer and BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson, and Moderna, which have already committed to delivering 1.3 billion doses this year (2021) to low-income countries at no profit and to middle-income countries at lower cost.

Intellectual property

In addition, the EU’s action on intellectual property sets out that voluntary licenses are the most effective instrument to facilitate the expansion of production and sharing of expertise. Where voluntary cooperation fails, compulsory licenses, whereby a government grants a targeted license allowing a willing producer to make a vaccine without the consent of a patent holder, are a legitimate tool in the context of a pandemic.

The EU is also tabling a dedicated communication on intellectual property to the WTO body in charge of implementing the TRIPS Council. In this communication, the EU provides detail and clarity on each of the three points on intellectual property and links them with the specific provisions in the TRIPS Agreement. With respect to a broad waiver proposed by a number of WTO members, the EC says it is not convinced that this would provide the best immediate response to reach the objective of the widest and timely distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

EU, UK support for global COVID-19 vaccination efforts

Separately, ahead of the G7 Summit beginning on Friday, June 11, 2021, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson showed support for broadening global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. The G7 (Group of Seven) is an organization of the world's seven largest advanced economies and includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US, and the G7 Summit is a meeting of the leaders from those countries.

“I will ask my fellow leaders to help vaccinate the world by the end of next year.” Johnson said in a June 5, 2021 tweet. “We have a responsibility to do everything we can to defeat COVID around the world.”

That joint effort was further supported in comments by the European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen,” she said in a June 4, 2021 statement. “The EU has actively shown solidarity with the world since the beginning of the pandemic. The European Union authorized exports of around half of the total amount of vaccines produced in Europe. Our immediate, urgent goal is to ensure equitable access for low – and middle-income countries, to share vaccines wider and faster. And we continue to help ramping up production. The EU proposes concrete short- and medium-term solutions to ensure universal access at affordable prices. I am looking forward to discuss with the G7 leaders next week how to achieve this goal. Beyond the current crisis, it is important to ensure global preparedness for future pandemics: diversifying manufacturing so that it is not centralized only in a handful of countries and strengthening the resilience of the healthcare infrastructure in least developed countries.”

Source: European Commission and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson