South Africa in 'intense talks' with EU to break deadlock over vaccine patent

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The European Union and South Africa are in "intense talks" on how to increase the availability of vaccines to developing countries, potentially breaking a year-long global deadlock on the topic, an EU official said on Thursday.

The two have been on either side of the debate at the World Trade Organization - South Africa championing a waiver of intellectual property (IP) rights and the European Union resisting and saying there is sufficient flexibility in existing rules.

The WTO wants to reach an agreement on global trade's response to the pandemic at its ministerial conference in Geneva from 30 November to 3 December.

European Commission official Antonio Fernandez-Martos told the trade committee of the European Parliament in a debate on the WTO that the European Union did not support a broad waiver of IP rights.

However, he said other WTO members were encouraging the EU to continue the "very intense work" it is conducting with proponents of the IP waiver, and notably South Africa.

"We're in intense talks with them around the idea of facilitating compulsory licensing," he told the parliamentary committee, referring to a system in which a government allows manufacture of a patented product without the consent of the patent owner.

"I can tell you that we are ready to go beyond what we have put on the table, because I think this is what can actually deliver increased manufacturing and more equitable distribution of vaccines and therapeutics," he continued.

WTO members held talks on the topic on Wednesday and Thursday, and a Geneva-based trade official said there were encouraging signs that members were engaging in the discussion more constructively after months of discord.

South Africa, the official said, suggested WTO members move beyond a binary approach of choosing either the waiver or the EU proposal.

WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said on Thursday that talks on a waiver were "stuck", but informal consultations were intensifying. She expressed her belief that members could find a pragmatic compromise.

"It's too early to say whether middle ground can be found. It's not like buying a carpet and you find a mid-point. Any agreement would require conceptual shifts," one delegate said of the EU-South Africa talks.

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