May 20, 2021

Inaction kills – European Parliament calls for waiver

Helmut Scholz

Every day 10.000 human beings are dying of COVID-19. We must make vaccine available globally in order to stop this. It is time to raise the pressure on decision makers in Europe to deliver. “Inaction kills, save lives, not big pharma” argues THE LEFT political group in the European Parliament. And on May 19th, the majority of the house supported the LEFT’s amendment to call on the EU Commission to support the waiver for patent protection of COVID-19 medication in the ongoing WTO negotiations.

A moment of truth came up in the European Parliament in Brussels on May 19th. Backed by the intensifying international campaign for a WTO patent waiver for vaccines and COVID-19 related medical products, THE LEFT group in the European Parliament had succeeded in adding this topic to the agenda of the plenary session. With no doubt, the growing number of voices both from political representatives around the globe and in Europe and the numerous NGO’s and civil society’s demands have made that possible. A recording of the debate can be found here: Plenary session – Multimedia Centre (

Members of aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) demonstrate outside the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property rights on coronavirus disease (COVID-19) drugs ahead of the meeting on WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) agreement in Geneva, Switzerland March 4, 2021. Photo: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

This debate has marked an important step in winning political majorities in the European Union. It became obvious: we still need to convince those parties in government of the remaining states reluctant to introduce a waiver, many of which are EU Member States. And since in the WTO, the EU Member States are represented by the EU Commission, we need to win a double political majority both in Council and in the European Parliament, to send the Commission with a mandate to Geneva to negotiate in favour of the waiver, rather than continuing to block it.

And then it happened. At the end of the day, after many hours of debate, a majority adopted an amendment tabled by THE LEFT stating:

calls on the EU, therefore, to support the Indian and South African World Trade Organization initiative for a temporary waiver on intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, equipment and treatments, and urges pharmaceutical companies to share their knowledge and data through the World Health Organization COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP);”

These words became part of Parliament’s resolution on “Accelerating progress and tackling inequalities towards ending AIDS as a public health threat by 2030”. It was the first time, the grounds were tested in a vote and majorities became visible on this subject. Our amendment won by 9 votes. Later on, the entire resolution was adopted with 468 votes in favour, 63 against and 162 abstentions. In the final vote, it was only German liberals (FDP), German christian-democrats (CDU) and some homophobic MEPs voting against this resolution.

In its next plenary session in June, the European Parliament will vote on this issue again, within the context of a report on trade policy after COVID-19, and in a dedicated resolution on the waiver. The task ahead is to create the public atmosphere that makes Members dare to defect from the mainstream in the centre-right groups in order to stand really on the right side – of history.

The European Peoples Party, including Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and led by the German Christian Social Union (CSU) politician Manfred Weber, had been blocking a debate in the European Parliament for months. They were supported by the far right (ECR) and right extreme (ID) political groups in the European Parliament, and until recently also by the market liberal group Renew Europe, dominated by Macron.

The Biden announcement to join the camp of more than 100 governments in favour of a waiver was certainly a game changer. Even if it remains until now only an announcement. In particular, French speaking voices are now claiming that they had always been in favour of the waiver. In addition, the group of Socialists and Democrats, number two in size in the European Parliament after EPP, hasted to announce that they decided to demand the waiver. The Greens had joint the call of THE LEFT long before. The debate in Parliament on May 19th was a moment to show political colour and to identify MEPs who could possibly be won over.

While being aware that Biden’s announcement has also a propaganda aspect, the world should make use of this opportunity. Work is needed to be done inside and outside of Parliament by civil society organisations to create the atmosphere for a favourable vote in June. Swings are still possible in both directions. Let us not forget that until now the governments of Joe Biden and of Britain’s Boris Johnson have been the biggest vaccine nationalists and categorically refused to export vaccines to other countries. And even today, the U.S. are actively blocking exports of certain raw materials and components needed to produce vaccine.

Let me briefly look at what caused the change in the U.S. position. President Biden has filled the position of United States Trade Representative with attorney Katherine Tai. Since her nomination was confirmed with a rare 98:0 result in the Senate, she spoke out at several opportunities in favour of strengthening labour rights and environmental aspects in trade policy. It can well be assumed that she has been positively responsive to the internal pressure of campaign groups in the U.S. These campaign groups in the U.S. are doing a tremendous job.

But there is also a geopolitical tactical reason for the change. The announcement came 1 day before the approval of a Chinese vaccine by the World Health Organisation. While the People’s Republic of China is delivering vaccine to a growing number of countries in need, the West’s Covax has only delivered 20 percent of the promised doses. The Biden administration sees China as its main global competitor. Sending a signal to so many governments in Africa, Asia and Latin America of standing against them in their cry for a waiver would have meant to play into the diplomatic cards of the Chinese government.

For the moment, Biden’s announcement to support the waiver was an inexpensive diplomatic coup. At this point in time, there is no making operational of the announcement. Negotiations in Geneva can drag on, in particular if Europe continues to slow down the talks.

Still, Biden’s statement has been politically very important for the campaign. It gives credibility to what many international activists and THE LEFT were saying. Before, political groups like ECR were denouncing the campaign by saying that “this is just communism with a Covid-19 dressing”. Hard to give that name to President Joe Biden.

The work in the WTO remains very difficult, until we have better European support. The EU is now one of the last opponents to the waiver and experiences an image problem. EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen presents herself already as open for debate. Commissioner Breton stated recently in a Committee session at the European Parliament that he has always been of the position that we must address patents. The narrative is falling that more than one hundred countries are wrong and only the West has the wisdom.

Several EU Member State Governments remain problematic, in particular those led by EPP member parties. The resistance of Chancellor Angela Merkel is now the main challenge. Her position is very much driven by the patent ownership of Germany based Biontech for their mRNA vaccine innovations. It is remarkable that she argued publicly that “we cannot give these patents away to the Chinese”, because mRNA could to be a promising approach to cure cancer. What a cynical example for protecting the profits of a pharma company rather than people. If there is this chance for a medical breakthrough for humanity, one should be speeding up the development by sharing the knowledge achieved. Even more in this moment:  the more we wait to produce and to distribute and apply vaccines, the more we will experience new mutations of the virus creating new variants. The more we wait the more we are exposing the world to the challenges posed by new mutations that would be vaccine or therapeutic resistant. Consequently, the extended duration of the pandemic with all its implications for human lives, for the social, economic, and democratic consistence of our societies, will become a bitter reality. 

Helmut Scholz

Waiving the patent protection in relation with COVID-19 is surely one first step. More is needed to increase production globally. More is needed also to medicines for treatment etc.  There is need for the respective companies to share the related technology and related Know-how. Further activities are needed, too, as regards exploring concrete and specific aspects of compulsory licensing and aspects of voluntary licensing arrangements for scaling-up C-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. This would help to make better use of the production facilities that do already exist in the global South. Will Biontech do so? Will Moderna do so? The U.S. actually own part of the patents held by Moderna and could lead by example. Even without unanimous decisions within the WTO, within the EU the German government could take this approach concerning Biontech, too. This would help more than attempts to water down the wording of the waiver proposed by South Africa in the WTO. We need to cooperate and help to invest in additional production capacities around the world to defeat jointly this pandemic. The wording now very often raised not only behind the locked-down doors of the European Parliament should become the decisive stimulus for re-considering policy-making: “let us be on the right side of history!”

A policy paper by Helmut Scholz, Member of the European Parliament, THE LEFT group. Read also: