UPDATED: Germany says production capacity, not patents, key to upping vaccine output

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The main challenge to raising production of COVID-19 vaccines is how to quickly and effectively transfer technology, Germany’s health minister said Friday, reiterating Berlin’s opposition to a U.S. proposal to waive patent protection.

“The main issue is not patent protection but production capacity,” Jens Spahn told a news conference on Friday.

In a jab at the Biden administration, Spahn also said: “I would be delighted if the United States shows the same willingness to export vaccines that we in Germany do.”

Germany rejected a U.S. proposal to waive patent protection for COVID-19 vaccines, saying the greatest constraints on production were not intellectual property but increasing capacity and ensuring quality.

President Joe Biden on Wednesday voiced support for a waiver in a sharp reversal of the U.S. position, and his top trade negotiator, Katherine Tai, swiftly backed negotiations at the World Trade Organization.

The German government stood behind the goal of a worldwide supply of COVID-19 vaccines, a government spokeswoman said earlier, adding however that the main factors in vaccine production are capacity and quality standards, and not patents.

“The protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so in the future,” the spokeswoman said in a statement.

She said Germany supported the COVAX initiative, with the aim of ensuring that as many people in the world as possible have access to vaccines, adding that discussions were continuing at the WTO.

The WTO said in April that of 700 million vaccines administered around the world, only 0.2% had been in low-income countries. A recent surge of infections in India, the world’s second most populous country, has underlined the point.

The European Union is willing to discuss a proposal to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Thursday, as drugmakers fought their ground.

The Swiss government said on Thursday a U.S. announcement that it would support waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines was significant but left many questions unanswered.

Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) said in an emailed statement: “This is an important announcement by the U.S., but many questions remain unanswered about the specific solutions it is considering in this context.”

SECO said Switzerland was still convinced that waiving intellectual property rights in the context of the pandemic could not guarantee fair, affordable and rapid access to vaccines, drugs and diagnostic products related to COVID-19.

It said Switzerland would examine the U.S. request and its consequences on the Swiss position, with the United States itself and within the World Trade Organisation.

Swiss company Lonza makes ingredients for Moderna’s  COVID-19 shot, while Swiss drugmaker Novartis makes COVID-19 vaccines for Germany’s CureVac.

Photo: Empty vials that contained the COVID-19 vaccines AstraZeneca, Moderna, A and B of Sputnik V, Sinopharm, Pfizer-BioNTech, left to right . EPA-EFE/Attila Balazs