European Union leaders are divided over whether to follow Washington in supporting a waiver of patent rights to Covid-19 vaccines, as many argue this would take years and not address the immediate issue of making more shots to end the pandemic.
Leaders of the 27-nation bloc will discuss the patent waiver idea at a two-day summit that starts in the Portuguese city of Porto on Friday, but are unlikely to formulate a strong united position apart from a general readiness to discuss the topic.
US President Joe Biden on Wednesday backed waiving intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines, responding to pressure from Democratic lawmakers and more than 100 other countries, but angering pharmaceutical companies.
Some EU officials argue that the waiving process, which would take place in the World Trade Organization (WTO), could take two years, making it irrelevant to getting the pandemic quickly under control.
Experts also point out that agreement to waive patent rights could vary in length of time or depending on the method used by the vaccine to produce immunity, with the latest, most advanced mRNA technology less likely to be made free for all.
The EU leaders are likely to hear advice from the bloc's executive Commission that a waiver would not help boost the production of shots, especially in poorer countries, as they require advanced technologies and facilities, officials said.
"We need an EU coordinated approach. We are not convinced if patent waivers would effectively help getting more vaccine doses to the people, since the main bottleneck for now is production capacity," one official from an EU country said.
"Production needs to be ramped up. Patents are currently not the main obstacle. However we are open to discuss all possible solutions," the official added.
Germany, whose BionTech company owns a patent on a vaccine jointly developed with US Pfizer using the latest mRNA technology, opposes the waiving of the patent rights, while Italy supports it, EU officials said.
EU officials believe the best way to end the pandemic quickly, preventing the emergence of new variants of the coronavirus, is to boost the production of shots and sell or donate vaccines to countries around the world.
"We are open to discuss the idea, options regarding patents, to see how this could help us achieve the goal of accelerating production and deliveries around the world," a Commission spokeswoman told a regular news briefing.
The EU, which is among the biggest producers of vaccines in the world, is also the main exporter of shots with 200 million doses already shipped outside the bloc, unlike the United States or Britain, which do not export the vaccines they make.