The EU has proposed that developing countries be allowed to manufacture Covid-19 vaccines, softening its defence of drug companies’ intellectual property.
Valdis Dombrovskis, trade commissioner, who had opposed a plan to reduce IP protection, has now said he could support limited exemptions.
India and South Africa are pushing for the abolition of IP controls, so domestic producers could replicate products from the likes of AstraZeneca and Pfizer without paying them royalties.
Dombrovskis offered a targeted waiver on compulsory licences, which would allow governments to compel manufacturers to hand over their formulas to create cheaper forms of their drug.
He offered few details but added: “This solution could facilitate production of vaccines and other essential health products, which are key for regions such as Africa, while preserving incentives for innovation and investment.
“The protection of patents is crucial in this respect, as they are essential for countries that want to attract investment and to have transfer of technology, in order to develop their own production capacity.
“We still hope to have consensus in this crucial matter in the days ahead, and we will maintain strong engagement to that end.”
Trade ministers will meet at the World Trade Organization in Geneva next week with vaccines high on the agenda.
While rich countries are delivering third booster jabs, many in the developing world remain unvaccinated.
The US supports a full waiver of IP rights but the EU says this would reduce the incentive for companies to spend billions researching new drugs.
The EU move will raise hopes of a WTO deal next week but India has so far rejected any compromise. Its joint proposal with Pretoria calls for any drug that could treat Covid to be stripped of IP protection for three years.
Dombrovskis said: “IP is only one piece in a big jigsaw. Collaboration with industry and investment in production capacity plays a much bigger part.”