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Pfizer head Bourla says he’s ‘not at all’ in favor of US vaccine patent waiver

Pharma chief comes out against Washington proposal, insists building new plants is not the solution; comments come as India announces record COVID deaths

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla speaks during a press conference at Pfizer's factory in Puurs, Belgium. (John Thys/Pool/AFP)
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla speaks during a press conference at Pfizer's factory in Puurs, Belgium. (John Thys/Pool/AFP)

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla on Thursday said he was against a US-backed proposal to waive patents on COVID-19 vaccines and that production should be ramped up in existing facilities instead.

In an interview with AFP, Bourla said his company, which developed its vaccine with German firm BioNTech, was “not at all” in favor of the call from the United States to waive patent protections for coronavirus shots.

The widely praised move by the US announced on Wednesday is seen by proponents as a way to boost production in developing countries that so far have received far fewer jabs.

But Bourla, reflecting the pharmaceutical industry’s long held position, insisted patents are not the main roadblocks to more production and that building new plants would be counterproductive.

A health worker gives a shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a community medical center in Sao Paulo, Brazil, May 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

“We should focus our efforts in what we can build right now, and that is enough capacity to produce billions of doses,” he said.

“The problem is that there are no facilities in the world outside the ones that we can build ourselves, that can make mRNA vaccines,” he said, referring to the type of COVID vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.

Bourla cautioned firmly against disrupting current operations “with politically motivated announcements.”

“They are empty promises,” he added.

Earlier, BioNTech pointed to issues ranging from the set up of manufacturing sites to the sourcing of raw materials, to the availability of qualified personnel that were holding up the process.

The German government on Thursday also stressed the importance of keeping patent protections intact after the EU said it was open to looking into the idea.

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

People wait to receive the Pfizer vaccine for the coronavirus at a vaccination center in Subang Jaya, Malaysia, April 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Rich nations have faced accusations of hoarding shots while poor countries struggle to get inoculation programs off the ground, with the virus surging across the developing world in contrast to the easing of restrictions in Europe and the United States.

The problem was highlighted as India, one of the worst-hit countries, registered record COVID-19 cases and deaths on Thursday.

India has been leading the fight to allow more drug makers to manufacture the vaccines, as it faces a surge that has seen patients die in streets outside hospitals due to bed and medical oxygen shortages.

A man performs the last rites before the cremation of his relative who died from COVID-19 at a cremation ground in New Delhi on May 6, 2021. (Prakash SINGH / AFP)

Under intense pressure to ease protections for vaccine manufacturers, Washington’s Trade Representative Katherine Tai said Wednesday that the US “supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.”

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hailed the announcement as “a monumental moment in the fight against COVID-19.”

The move was also praised by the African Union, Paris, Rome and Vienna as well as World Trade Organization chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who previously voiced reluctance on the issue, said Brussels was ready to discuss the proposal.

Momentum built as Russian President Vladimir Putin said he too supported the idea of a patent waiver, as Russia registered a single-dose virus shot called Sputnik Light.

But Berlin’s decision to come out strongly against the proposal has now left its fate unclear.

“The protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so in the future,” a spokeswoman for Angela Merkel’s government said.

The US-Germany rift, a boon to big pharmaceutical companies, comes as more than 3.2 million people have died from the virus worldwide since the crisis began in late 2019.

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