Pope Francis on Saturday supported waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, backing a proposal by US President Joe Biden that has been rebuffed by some European nations, including Germany.
In a speech to a global fundraising concert to promote fair access to vaccines, the pope said the world was infected with the “virus of individualism.”
“A variant of this virus is closed nationalism, which prevents, for example, an internationalism of vaccines,” he said in the pre-recorded video message.
“Another variant is when we put the laws of the market or of intellectual market or intellectual property over the laws of love and the health of humanity,” he added, recalling the heavy death toll the coronavirus had inflicted on the world.
His comments came in the middle of a debate over whether pharmaceutical companies should waive patent protection for COVID-19 vaccines.
Biden backed such a move on Wednesday, heeding calls from India, South Africa and more than 100 other countries.
However, many European countries, led by Germany and France, distanced themselves on Friday from the suggestion, arguing that key to ending the COVID-19 pandemic was making and sharing vaccines more quickly.
Charles Michel, chairman of EU leaders, said the way to fight the pandemic now was to quickly make more shots and lift export curbs on them in countries like the United States and Britain.
“In Europe we took the decision to make exports possible and we encourage all partners to facilitate the exports of doses,” Michel said after discussions with leaders of the 27-nation bloc on Friday evening.
India and South Africa called last year for the lifting of patent rights to vaccines as a way of boosting manufacturing and ensuring the world is supplied.
“On intellectual property — we don’t think that in the short term that it is a magic bullet, but we are ready to engage on this topic as soon as a concrete proposal would be put on the table,” Michel said.
Officials said that during Friday’s summit talks, Germany — home to BionTech which holds a patent on the highly effective mRNA vaccine together with Pfizer — argued strongly against the idea of waiving patent rights.
Portugal, Estonia, Belgium and Ireland were also sceptical but Greece backed the waiver idea, as did Italy, which was in favor of time-limited and geographically targeted measures.
EU officials say Europe is one of the biggest exporters of coronavirus vaccines in the world, with some 200 million doses shipped out to 90 countries — the same number of shots that Europe has distributed among its own citizens.
French President Emmanuel Macron, speaking to reporters before Saturday’s talks, said that with COVID-19 vaccines the world could try to emulate what was done years ago with medicines against HIV, when such medicines became too expensive for poor nations.
“We need to start a debate today about doing exactly as we did at the time of HIV, where the intellectual property was a source of blockage, it should be possible to lift it, but in a limited way,” Macron said.
He stressed that any action should not financially punish the companies that came up with the vaccine technology.
The EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, called on Friday on the United States and other major vaccine producers to export what they make.
Commission head Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference discussions on the waiver would not produce a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine in the short- to medium-term.