German leader Angela Merkel on Friday resisted calls to remove patent protections on Covid-19 vaccines as a way of boosting global supplies.
Rich countries are under pressure to address the imbalance in global vaccination rates, with the global Covax scheme falling short of its targets.
Washington this month backed the idea of waiving patents, but the German chancellor spoke out against the idea at a Global Solutions Initiative event where she said companies needed incentives to produce the shots.
She said that suspending patent rights could discourage companies from developing medicines for future virus mutations or new diseases.
“Those who have been developing these vaccines with breathtaking speed – if we were to turn to them and say you’ll have to forsake your patents right now, I don’t think that would be the best thing to do,” she said.
“We’re talking about companies here that have the capability to produce these vaccines, and all of a sudden we take away the patents from them.
“I don’t want the message to go out that in the next crisis situation, it is no longer worthwhile for companies to invest or to work hard to develop goods or produce medicine.”
Ms Merkel said Germany had provided Covax with more than €2.2 billion ($2.67bn) in funding, but that money was not the main issue.
“We have found that it doesn’t help a lot to have a lot of money in the account of Covax, because we don’t have enough vaccines,” she said. "We need to produce more, much more than we have done so far.
“I believe we need incentives for the respective companies to further invest in development.”
Warning over virus mutations in unvaccinated countries
Unicef said last week that Covax faced a shortfall of nearly 190 million doses by next month, partly because of the disastrous second wave of the pandemic in India.
At current rates, some developing countries face waiting until 2023 or 2024 to vaccinate their populations against Covid-19.
Italian premier Mario Draghi, speaking alongside Ms Merkel, said Europe had a stake in boosting vaccine access in Africa.
“So long as the pandemic rages on, the virus can undergo dangerous mutations that can undermine even the most successful vaccination campaign,” he said.
The EU last week announced a plan to donate at least 100 million vaccine doses to poorer countries by the end of the year.
But EU leaders reacted sceptically to the Biden administration’s support for suspending patents, despite pressure from human rights groups.
Ms Merkel said pharmaceutical companies should be encouraged to invest in Africa.
“There will be further virus mutations, there will be new pathogens coming up and this is why we need to prepare for further pandemic threats,” Ms Merkel said.
“So we should not reduce incentives for research and development, but rather we ought to maintain it. Patent protection plays a very important role in this respect."
Lamenting a lack of preparation for the pandemic, Ms Merkel said Germany had tried to put the issue on the global agenda during its G7 and G20 presidencies in 2015 and 2017.
She said some progress had been made but wished that countries had taken more steps to prepare.
But, she conceded, “at the time, no one would probably have been able to imagine that this issue would become so pressing”.