The fight over the commercial legal protection of therapeutics, vaccines and tests for Covid-19 lasted a good two years. Initially, representatives of the old and new federal government toyed with the idea of releasing patents in order to push the fight against the epidemic worldwide. Official documents that have now become public show how the pharmaceutical lobby successfully opposed this. Biontech founder Uğur Şahin also worked hard at the highest level.
“Release the Wrong Way”
The surprising change of course can be understood on the basis of documents from the former Chancellor Angela Merkel. These documents include lobbying letters from corporations and associations, ministerial bills and notes that government departments and the Federal Chancellery have now published on application under the Freedom of Information Act (IFG) from the Bundestag watch.de portal. After the first months of the corona pandemic, the CDU politician described a future vaccine against the rapidly spreading infectious disease as a “global public good”. But a few weeks later, there was a turnaround.
According to research by the Transparency Platform, when Merkel spoke in the Bundestag on June 24 on the subject of vaccine patents, she herself sounded like a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry: “I think a politically enforced release of the patents is the wrong approach,” she suddenly emphasized. The future development of vaccines is only guaranteed “if the protection of intellectual property is not overridden”.
What had happened in the meantime? On May 6, 2021, Şahin phoned Merkel, the “Spiegel” reported on the same day. The focus was on patent protection after the early announcement by the then head of government in the pharmaceutical industry had set off alarm bells. At that time, German and international companies like Biontech had long been researching Covid19 vaccines and were hoping for huge profits. But if the vaccine manufacturers were forced to release the patents they had applied for at the same time, they would lose billions in revenue.
Nothing else is known about the exact content of the conversation between Merkel and Şahin. That same afternoon, however, the Chancellery received an e-mail from the pharmaceutical boss in Mainz, which was published by Bundestag Watch in a redacted form. Şahin sincerely thanks the “dear Ms. Merkel” “for your support”. In addition, there is a kind of formulation aid for the future: “Here is the text that we are currently using in our communication, with the arguments as to why releasing patents does not make sense.”
“Innovations” thanks to intellectual property
Previously, in February 2021, a few weeks after the mRNA vaccine from Biontech/Pfizer was approved, a representative of the US pharmaceutical company contacted the then Federal Minister for Economic Affairs Peter Altmaier (CDU). According to the report, in his letter he told the head of department that intellectual property rights are “a crucial component for the emergence of innovations”.
It is said that the industry’s lobbying offensive had already started before that. In January last year, the Association of Research-Based Pharmaceutical Manufacturers (vfa) appealed in a letter to Altmaier to work “against the abolition of intellectual property rights in the interests of Germany as a business location”. The Federal Minister of Justice responsible, Christine Lambrecht (SPD), was able to “basically understand” the concerns that were forwarded to her. Later, the Federation of German Industries (BDI) is said to have made a similar contribution.
Public funds for research
At the international level, the federal government tried again and again to block the release of relevant patents. The change of government did not change anything in principle, because the new Federal Minister of Economics, Robert Habeck, from the Greens, quickly made a 180-degree turn under pressure from the pharmaceutical lobby. On January 26, he told the press about the patent approval: “After talking to the companies again intensively, I don’t think that would help us.”
At a hearing in the Bundestag in February, on the other hand, several of the invited experts advocated the slogan “Public money, public vaccines” and thus a more effective use of taxpayers’ money. In particular, the mRNA vaccine from the US pharmaceutical company Moderna was almost entirely financed by public funds from the US government. Such funding must be linked to conditions such as transparency, affordability and global technology transfer.
Vaccine against computer chips
According to the document pool, German researchers also appealed to the federal government to advocate at least a temporary suspension of the patents. It was only in June that the 164 member states of the World Trade Organization (WTO) finally agreed on a compromise: Designated developing countries could therefore introduce or maintain compulsory licenses and produce vaccines themselves.
According to the report, the exchange between Big Pharma and the federal government was not just about commercial legal protection. The papers obtained suggest that Biontech and Pfizer may have also helped the federal government address the challenge of a lack of computer chips, particularly for the auto industry. It is said to have been a good thing that the large semiconductor manufacturing country Taiwan needed a Covid19 vaccine in those months. An email from Pfizer to Altmaier contained a promise to solve “this complex problem” quickly. In September 2021, the US group delivered vaccine doses worth 350 million US dollars to the island state. Nothing is known about the amount of the potential chips consideration.
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