With a WTO deadlocked over the TRIPS waiver issue, France and the EU make a renewed effort to break the stalemate

France and the EU are actively engaged in a push to break the impasse over the stalled WTO TRIPS waiver negotiations. They hope the upcoming EU-Africa Summit, scheduled to take place in Brussels on February 17 and 18, will bring new momentum to the discussions. Diplomatic sources tell The Geneva Observer that the response to the pandemic will be at the top of the Summit’s agenda—and will include the IP question. The hope is that an agreement might finally be reached on the patents for medicines, vaccines, diagnostics, and other products in the fight against COVID-19. “At this point, it is too early to talk about an agreement between the EU and Africa,” according to a knowledgeable source, but “a whole range of pragmatic options are being discussed.”

Progress in Brussels during the summit would not, however, end the debate about the TRIPS waiver proposal. Now supported by more than 63 other countries, India and South Africa (the two initial proponents of the IP exemptions still on the table at the WTO) are privately expressing their concerns that the European initiative (spearheaded by France) would undermine their original proposal, and thereby complicate the already fraught negotiations.

Last week, leaving no doubts about the EU’s determination to move ahead, French President Emmanuel Macron offered some clues as to what might be included in the new package. Speaking before the European Parliament, he said: “Firstly, you have to transfer the technology and create the capacity,” adding the caveat that, “by no means, however, would this be a proposal to scrap IP rights.” How, then, would this differ from the June 2021 European proposal that failed to convince African countries—which remains, after the joint Indian-South African proposition, the only official paper on the subject discussed at the WTO? Sources close to the discussions say that the recourse to IP compulsory licenses would be facilitated and broadened. Compulsory licenses are permitted under the WTO TRIPS provisions and can be granted by governments to allow alternative production or importation of a generic version of a patented medical product, without the prior consent of the patent holder.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala had hoped for an agreement late last year, but the trade ministerial conference was postponed because of the omicron variant. The vacuum left by the WTO gave the Europeans space to propose a global licensing mechanism, removing barriers to allow technology transfer to Africans and the creation of production hubs on the continent. Their proposal would allow individualized licensing of patents, without a blanket waiver.

The upcoming EU-Africa Brussels summit—which was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic—comes against the backdrop of growing frustration from African countries that insist that the continuing disparity in access to vaccines is having consequences that go far beyond health and is deepening the continent's isolation. A package such as the one pushed by the EU, which includes health-related development aid, would help to strengthen a promising health tech sector on the continent.

Questioned by The G|O, diplomats in Geneva were also quick to point out that a successful EU-African summit would undeniably offer interesting collateral political benefits to France and the EU. For Paris, the initiative coincides with the French presidency of the EU and with Macron's certain quest for a second presidential mandate. If successful, the outcome could increase the French president's visibility and reputation as an international actor.

More broadly, the initiative is seen as having the potential to reconfigure alliances at the WTO and WHO, with the EU reclaiming the initiative and China’s influence in Africa checked, a longstanding objective of the West and particularly of France. Beijing has been aggressively practicing its ‘vaccine diplomacy’ in Africa with a promise to deliver one billion doses of its Sinovac vaccine this year, 600 million of them for free. “China has already sent over two billion doses of vaccines to more than 120 countries and international organizations,” Chinese President Xi Jinping reminded his audience at the World Economic Forum via video link last week.

To put things into context, last week, the WHO reminded us that more than 80 countries around the world are still short of meeting the goal of having 40% of their populations protected. Thirty of them are below the 10% target. The EU’s initiative also comes at a time of growing outrage at pharmaceutical companies’ revenue forecasts from vaccine sales. Consultancy company Airfinity forecasts that the vaccine market is expected to reach $65.6B in 2021 and grow to $84.9B in 2022: a 29% growth. (This excludes the Chinese vaccines and market.)

The analysis predicts that the 2022 market will be dominated by mRNA vaccines. “Pfizer/BioNTech is expected to generate $42.7B and Moderna $25.7B. AstraZeneca is expected to be the third largest revenue generating vaccine with $4.3B, followed by J&J with $3.5B,” Airfinity estimates. “This would make the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines the two best-selling medical products in 2022.”