Statement by João Ferreira, member of the Political Committee of the Central Committee, Press Conference

Right to vaccination, health imperative - The strategy that is needed

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Besides other important and urgent measures, one of the most effective ways of combating the Covid-19 pandemic is to implement the vaccination process as quickly as possible in every country, all over the world.

Vaccination is essential to save lives. It is also essential to resume economic and social activity more quickly and fully, without the current heavy constraints and the resulting losses.

In Portugal and in the European Union (EU), vaccination is progressing more slowly than initially forecast. More slowly, too, than it should be possible and is necessary to guarantee, taking into account already developed vaccines. Achieving the necessary herd immunity by the end of summer through vaccination requires, given the well known situation, that exceptional measures be taken.

The obvious difficulties in the course of the vaccination process, resulting from constraints on the production side, are not circumstantial. They result from the basic option that was taken, with a strategy based solely on public-private partnerships (PPP), entered into between the European Commission and six pharmaceutical multinationals: BioNTech-Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Johnson and Johnson, Sanofi-GSK and CureVac .

The EU funded the production of vaccines with public resources. It funded the research and development phase; funded risk insurance; bought vaccines in advance. However, it forfeited any ownership rights on the invention it funded. The pace of production of the vaccines is, therefore, determined by the productive capacity of the pharmaceutical companies and the management they make of the process, according to their business interests, including in response to the various purchase orders. The millionaire profits that the multinational pharmaceutical companies have been announcing have as a counterpart a slower progress in vaccination.

Portugal is, right now, one of the countries most affected by the delays announced by the pharmaceutical companies, since in the purchase options it made, with AstraZeneca's vaccines having greater weight, and are those that are more lagging behind, given the commitments that had been assumed. This same pharmaceutical company, while delaying the supply of vaccines, has just announced a 159% increase in its profits in 2020, compared to 2019.

Portugal, like other countries, cannot be a prisoner to the interests of pharmaceutical multinationals, nor of those who defend them. If the greatest obstacle to the progress of vaccination is the lack of vaccines due to the failure of pharmaceutical companies to deliver what they had contractually pledged, then it is necessary to adopt measures to defend public interest.

Vaccines can and should be mass produced in laboratories prepared to do so. Taking advantage of the existing productive capacity and enhancing it, expanding it, in all countries. This requires that public health prevails over intellectual property rights. In other words, it requires opening patents, which can be done either through negotiation, to release them at reasonable prices, or by using existing legal mechanisms for that purpose.
Last week, during the debate that took place in the European Parliament, the President of the European Commission reiterated her refusal to pursue this path. The European Commission has also refused to disclose all parts of the contracts it has signed with the multinational pharmaceutical companies. This situation is all the more unacceptable since these contracts involved huge public investments.

Meanwhile, it is worth remembering that there are not only the three vaccines developed by pharmaceutical laboratories funded and contracted by the EU. At this moment, there are in different stages of development close to two hundred vaccines, involving a large number of countries.

About a dozen vaccines have already been approved by different national regulatory authorities and are being evaluated by the scientific community. This evaluation, in some cases, has confirmed remarkable degrees of efficiency and safety. Some of these vaccines, produced by public institutions, outside the PPP logic followed by the EU, are authorized to be manufactured in countries other than those in which they were developed, under agreements that do not involve astronomical patent costs.

In this context, it is required that the Portuguese Government should not stand still and should take the initiative.

On the one hand, Portugal must start, now, a process of studying and implementing, in a sovereign way, the purchase of vaccines from other countries, in addition to the EU framework, guaranteeing conditions for a faster implementation of the universal access of the Portuguese to vaccination. This process should also provide for the creation of conditions so that, in the near future, national production in this area is guaranteed.

It should be stressed that several countries that are part of the EU announced, and some materialized, the intention to diversify vaccine purchase options, without being bound only to vaccines made available by the EU, thus guaranteeing a faster pace in the vaccination of their respective populations.

On the other hand, exercising the Presidency of the Council of the EU, Portugal must contribute to overcome the current blockages in the supply of vaccines, resulting from a strategy focused solely on the public funding of multinational pharmaceutical companies. The Portuguese Government should take the initiative, with the other Member States, with a view to a cooperation strategy with other countries, more advanced in the production and distribution of vaccines to diversify purchase options at EU level, thus making vaccines more readily available to their Member States and create conditions to ensure a faster progress in vaccination worldwide.

The COVAX mechanism, created to speed up access to vaccines by developing countries, is currently proving to be insufficient, even to reach priority groups. The priority given to the interests of pharmaceutical multinationals, of course, contributes to this.

It is important to remember that the effectiveness of vaccination depends on the extent and speed of its implementation. Vaccines must reach all countries and their populations, without exclusions.

Having vaccines against Covid-19 in less than a year was an enormous feat of science. Public funding of research and development efforts, in billions of euros, the contribution of
thousands of doctors, scientists and nurses, and patients from all over the world, were the key to this achievement. That is why vaccines should be considered a global public asset, accessible to all.