With the ultra-contagious Delta variant fueling devastating waves of coronavirus infections across the globe, a group of House Democrats is demanding a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss her ongoing “blockade” of a temporary patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines—a popular proposal aimed at quickly boosting supply of the life-saving shots.
“Thanks to IP barriers, it is the U.S. and German firms that have the only approved Covid-19 mRNA vaccines that hold the monopoly power to decide if this scale-up will occur.”
“We are troubled by the European Union’s continuing opposition to this initiative, which we understand is a position led by Germany within the E.U.,” nine House Democrats wrote in a letter (pdf) late Monday to Emily Haber, Germany’s ambassador to the United States.
The letter comes just days before Merkel is set to arrive in the United States for a July 15 White House visit, during which the German leader and U.S. President Joe Biden are expected to discuss a range of pressing issues, including the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis.
In their letter, the group of House Democrats led by Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois noted that the U.S. and “almost every other” member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) supports the proposed intellectual property waiver, which South Africa and India first introduced in October.
“Scaling up much greater production of mRNA vaccines is necessary to save millions of lives and livelihoods,” the lawmakers wrote. “Thanks to IP barriers, it is the U.S. and German firms that have the only approved Covid-19 mRNA vaccines that hold the monopoly power to decide if this scale-up will occur.”
“Chancellor Merkel joining President Biden in supporting the waiver would lock in her legacy worldwide and that of Germany as heroes taking extraordinary efforts to protect people worldwide from the worst health threat in 100 years,” they continued. “Chancellor Merkel’s failure to do so, and thus putting industry IP monopolies as a priority over people, will also be understood globally if that is the outcome.”
Biden won widespread applause after he endorsed the patent waiver in May, but little progress has been made toward a final agreement at the WTO as Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, and a handful of other wealthy countries continue to stonewall the proposal. In the weeks since he announced his support for the waiver, Biden has done little to publicly pressure U.S. allies to follow suit, prompting criticism from advocacy groups and experts.
The rapid spread of the Delta variant has increased pressure on the leaders of rich nations to end their obstruction of the waiver, which would suspend intellectual property barriers that are preventing manufacturers around the world from producing generic vaccines for developing countries.
In the absence of a patent waiver, low-income nations are struggling to get their vaccination drives off the ground due to the artificially scarce supply of doses and other factors, including pharmaceutical companies’ refusal to share essential manufacturing technology that was developed with public funding. Just 1% of people in low-income countries have received at least one coronavirus vaccine dose, according to the latest figures from Our World in Data.
Research published last week in the journal Nature found that just one dose of the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine “barely inhibited” the Delta variant, which is ripping through undervaccinated regions of the world such as Africa and South America. The strain has also been detected in all 50 states of the U.S., and it is hammering pockets of the nation with low vaccination rates.
“We are experiencing a worsening public health emergency that further threatens lives, livelihoods, and a sound global economic recovery,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, warned Monday. “It is definitely worse in places that have very few vaccines, but the pandemic is not over, anywhere.”
Public health campaigners across the U.S. are planning to greet Merkel with nationwide protests demanding that she end her opposition to the patent waiver and join global efforts to break the pharmaceutical industry’s stranglehold on vaccine production.
“Covid-19 is raging through the many nations with limited vaccine access. Poor nations’ access may lag until 2024, destroying lives and livelihoods and increasing chances a vaccine-resistant variant develops,” said consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, one of the organizations behind the protests.
“Merkel’s singular role as the obstacle has made the summit a critical test of whether President Joe Biden can deliver on his goal of a TRIPS waiver unlocking global vaccine and treatment access—or his initiative to save tens of millions of live could fail despite his historic support, as well as Merkel’s chance to cement her legacy as a humanitarian, not a Big Pharma shill,” the group added.