Patent means power

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President Joe Biden’s support for the suspension of patents developed by pharmaceutical companies makes an undoubted qualitative leap in the ongoing discussion in the WTO on the treatment of intellectual property of anti-Covid-19 vaccines.

The issue will be discussed by EU governments at today’s summit in Porto, but presidents Mario Draghi and Emmanuel Macron have already said they are in favor of the American proposal. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on the other hand, insists on the protection of intellectual property against liberalization. However, the goal is to produce at least 11 billion doses to vaccinate 70% of the world population and achieve so-called mass immunity globally.

According to those in favor, the news recalls the precedent of the fight against AIDS, for the treatment of which during the Nineties of the last century medicines were only available in Europe and the United States. It was only with the fall of the “patent wall” that it became possible to distribute them even in the poorest world.

The hope is that the suspension of patents will increase the production capacity of vaccine serums, creating the conditions for an effective and pervasive campaign, especially in the most troubled areas of the globe. To date, 83% of the vaccine doses already administered in the world have been destined for inhabitants of so-called rich or middle-rich countries.

Skeptics and opponents argue that the constraints to an increase in production do not depend on the intellectual property on vaccines, but are linked to the scarcity of some components necessary to make them, especially in the case of the more sophisticated ones. Then there are issues such as the technological preparation of the companies appointed to produce, the predictable legal disputes that would follow a suspension of patents and the future of the network of alliances signed up to now by the main manufacturing companies with a myriad of companies scattered around the planet.

Behind the American support for the suspension of patents is a lucid strategic calculation. With the epidemic now under control at home, the Biden administration’s goal is to contain not so much the spread of the virus as that of the vaccines of its main challengers – Russia and China – to the rest of the world.

Nothing to do with romantic humanitarian impulses on the part of the new tenant of the White House, but a real global battle for influence in which the United States does not intend to cede its primacy to rivals. For this reason, even the recalcitrant US pharmaceutical companies will have no alternative to abide quickly to the diktats of the American state.

Washington knows perfectly well that even if the patent suspension were to take effect quickly, for industrial and logistical reasons the effects of this decision on production would not be so immediate. Suddenly there would be only the benefit of image for the superpower, even better if against its main rival in Europe: Germany.

The Berlin government does not want to suspend the patents and in the last few hours has communicated its opposition to all European organizations. Mrs von der Leyen herself had to downsize her enthusiastic demonstrations of support to the American announcement. Merkel aims to protect investments, including governmental investments in BioNTech at all costs, an approach that reflects the traditional approach of Germany in which economy comes first and which constitutes the main obstacle to a greater projection of German power abroad.

The Federal Republic is also under fire from the United States for its role as a bridge-country to China. In this sense, President Biden’s move on vaccines comes after another important American success achieved precisely against the Sino-German axis. This week EU institutions announced the freezing of the investment agreement between China and the EU. The deal was strongly desired by the Germans for commercial, mercantilist and industrial reasons but it was intolerable in the eyes of the Americans. Especially when president Biden aims to compact the West by encouraging the Europeans to loose some of the economic and technological ties they had sealed with the Asian rival.