Global Vaccine Rivalries

Berlin continues to reject Covid-19 vaccine patent waiver. Washington pursues geo-strategic objectives with its call to suspend patents.

BERLIN/BRUSSELS/WASHINGTON (Own report) - Berlin and the EU are blocking temporary suspension of Covid-19 vaccine patents, even after the US changed its position on the issue. Following the recent EU summit, Chancellor Angela Merkle und European Council President Charles Michel declared that they do not believe that waving patents would be the appropriate step for increased vaccine production. Berlin is particularly worried about BioNTech's mRNA patents. With its patents, the company is expected to significantly contribute to Germany as a biotechnological address. Thus, China should not get its hands on the patents, Chancellor Angela Merkle is quoted to have said. With its move to wave patents, the Biden administration is also taking the competition with China into account. Since India can no longer export vaccines, due to the pandemic's escalation in that country, poorer and emerging countries have been supplied almost exclusively by China and Russia - including with the licenses to produce their own vaccines. Patent waivers could break the Sino-Russian vaccine dominance.

Patent Waiver? "No Solution"

The German government and the EU - primarily under German insistence - are blocking the US move to cede to growing international pressure to at least temporarily suspend Covid-19 vaccine patents. Whereas the UN general secretary and the heads of the World Health and World Trade Organizations (WHO and WTO) explicitly welcomed the Biden administration's announcement on this issue, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke out against a patent waiver after the summit concluded on Saturday: "I don't think waiving patents is the solution to supply the vaccine to more people," she declared.[1] Even though prior to the EU summit, several EU member states had welcomed the US move - including Austria, Spain and Poland - there was no mention made once Merkel had openly opposed it during the EU summit. Concerning the patent waiver, European Council President, Charles Michel, declared, "We don't think in the short term that it's the magic bullet."[2] Once concrete proposals are put on the table, "we are ready to engage on this." Quoting EU circles, German media dismissively speak of a "PR stunt" by the United States.

Blocking Supplies

In fact, last Wednesday's announcement by the Biden administration that it would no longer block patent waivers was made only after Washington had come under increasing international pressure. Protests against the stockpiling of vaccines in the USA, have been intensifying since it became known in mid-April that around 300 million unused vaccine jabs could be piling up in US warehouses by the end of July, while most of the poorer countries are facing extreme shortages.[3] Complaints have also been raised because the USA not only severely restricts the export of vaccines, but also of primary products. Referring to provisions in the U.S. Defense Production Act (DPA), this had been decreed by US President Joe Biden immediately after taking office. Since this had seriously affected vaccine production by, for example, the Serum Institute of India, the world's largest vaccine manufacturer, its CEO Adar Poonawalla had publicly criticized Biden in mid-April.[4] In severely pandemic-stricken India, US blockades have increased anger against the United States and against Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government's pro-US course [5] - a development that cannot leave Washington indifferent, since it is counting on close cooperation with New Delhi for its power struggle with Beijing.

Without Counterweight

The dramatic escalation of the pandemic in India is additionally weakening the position of the West in its vaccine rivalry with China and Russia. Developing and emerging countries until now have almost exclusively received vaccines from China, Russia and India. In the meantime, China has supplied 240 million doses of vaccines to numerous countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, as well as to some of the more impoverished countries in Eastern and Southeastern Europe.[6] Beijing, as well as Moscow - which, in spite of lower production capacities, is exporting as much vaccine as possible - are also promoting the production under license of their vaccines by local companies in various impoverished or threshold countries, including Brazil, Morocco, Indonesia and Serbia. Until recently, vaccines were also being supplied by India, where the Serum Institute of India was producing the AstraZeneca (Great Britain) vaccine under license, with deliveries of more than 66 million doses of vaccines to developing and emerging countries, according to India's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Because India now needs all available capacities for its own struggle against the pandemic, for the time being, it can not serve as a pro-western counterweight to Russia and China among those supplying vaccines to the more impoverished world.

The Pharmacy of the Rich

Therefore, poorer countries are almost entirely dependent on aid from China and Russia, because even the EU - contrary to its claims - is providing very little. In a speech last Thursday, at the European University Institute in Florence, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen declared that the EU is "the only democratic region in the world that exports vaccines on a large scale," and she proudly called the Union the "world's pharmacy."[7] India is sometimes referred to as the "world's pharmacy," because its pharmaceutical companies produce huge quantities of reasonably-priced medicine, that are affordable for poorer countries. Of course, there are companies in the EU that particularly export expensive BioNTech/Pfizer vaccines, mainly to wealthy countries, as was confirmed by the spokesperson for the Commission for Trade Issues, Miriam GarciaFerrer. Since January, Brussels has approved, in principle, 178 million doses for export, mainly to Japan (72 million vaccines), the UK (19 million), Canada (18 million), Saudi-Arabia (7 million), Switzerland and Turkey (both 5 million), Singapore and Korea (both 3 million). There were hardly any deliveries to poorer countries.[8]

Making a Clean Sweep

While the West is losing ground in its competition with China and Russia for influence, numerous countries' vaccine production capacities lie idle. Canada's Biolyse Pharma has been attempting for months to obtain a license to produce vaccines - to no avail. Its capacity has been estimated at 50 million doses annually. Bangladesh’s Incepta Pharmaceuticals, in Dhaka, could make 350 million doses a year, but has also been unable to procure a license.[9] However, that may now change. Since India, Bangladesh's main supplier, is now missing, Dhaka has been trying hard to find a replacement - in Beijing and Moscow. Particularly, the licensed production of Sputnik V is in discussion. Representatives of Incepta Pharmaceuticals participated in the negotiations on this prospect a few days ago.[10] If the West does not want to lag behind Russia and China, in the global race for a vaccine, there must be a change of course.

A "Game-Changing Technology"

Thus, the Biden administration - for geostrategic reasons - would not only infringe upon the interests of mighty US pharmaceutical companies, fearing for their profits, but also upon Berlin's interests. The German government is promoting BioNTech and CureVac with their mRNA vaccines, because the mRNA technology is considered the most important factor for expanding Germany's capacity as a biotechnological address. Therefore, according to reports, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared at the EU summit, that China should not get its hands on the mRNA patents.[11] This evening, Monday, she will be discussing with top-notch experts the question of "game-changing technologies for the biotechnological address Germany," with mRNA technology being the main theme. Its promotion is gaining prominence in Berlin's pandemic policy. will report soon.


[1] Pressekonferenz nach dem informellen Treffen des Europäischen Rats und EU-Indien-Gipfel in Porto. 08.05.2021.

[2] Matthias Kolb: Europas Unmut über Bidens PR-Trick. 08.05.2021.

[3] Adam Taylor, Emily Rauhala: U.S. could have 300 million extra vaccine doses by end of July, raising concerns about hoarding. 15.04.2021.

[4] Poonawalla twitterte am 16. April: "Respected @POTUS, if we are to truly unite in beating this virus, on behalf of the vaccine industry outside the U.S., I humbly request you to lift the embargo of raw material exports out of the U.S. so that vaccine production can ramp up. Your administration has the details."

[5] See also "A Signal to China".

[6] Iain Marlow, Sudhi Ranjan Sen, James Paton: China is filling the global COVID vaccine shortage left by the U.S. and India. 08.05.2021.

[7] Rede von Präsidentin von der Leyen auf der Konferenz zur Lage der Union des European University Institute. 06.05.2021.

[8] EU vaccines: Millions of doses exported to rich countries, less to poor countries. 08.05.2021.

[9] Saeed Shah, Yaroslav Trofimov, Gabriele Steinhauser: India's Covid-19 Crisis Raises Pressure to Waive Vaccine Patents. 01.05.2021.

[10] Mohammad Al-Masum Molla: Chinese Vaccine: 5 lakh doses may arrive on May 10. 03.05.2021.

[11] Matthias Kolb: Europas Unmut über Bidens PR-Trick. 08.05.2021.