The Belgian MEP who made the European Parliament shift

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Marc Botenga, Belgian MEP and member of The Left European coalition, introduced an amendment supporting the drop of the COVID-19 vaccines patents to the European Parliament in March 2020. After more than a year of battle, the European Parliament has finally voted in favour of the proposition.

Back in 2020, Mr Botenga, elected-member of the Belgian Workers’ Party, initiated the proposition before the European Parliament, while the seven parties forming the current Belgian government were against and closed to any discussion on intellectual property rights. 

Inspired by Jonas Salk, inventor of the unpatented vaccine which helped eradicate polio, and warned by the fiasco of the intellectual property rights on HIV and AIDS treatments that blocked their access to poorer countries, the MEP felt that he had to push European leaders and institutions to back his amendment. The European deputy said he could see that “patents would prevent from producing enough vaccines for the whole world, whereas using all the production capacity was one of the priorities”. 

As Mr Botenga said, “when we started this campaign a year ago, no one really cared and very few agreed”. Thanks to a big coalition of civil societies organisations and trade unions, as well as the USA announcing their support, pressure has been built outside of the European Parliament and the Commission, and waiving the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) “has now taken center-stage on political debates”. 

On the 21st of May, the European Parliament finally voted in support of the TRIPS waiver, a first step that Mr Botenga sees as a symbol. “The European Parliament does not actually have the power to impose big pharmaceutical companies to act, but it increases the pressure [on European leaders]”. However, the MEP underlined the instability of the decision, as the Parliament will vote again today and tomorrow, and there is no guarantee that they will still be in favour. 

The European Commission has not yet voted in support of the amendment. Mr Botenga believes that it will happen, but not for now.  If the European Union aligns itself with the USA’s decision, the situation will change inside the WTO, as they “have the power to make pharmaceutical companies drop the patents”. Once the rich countries show their support, things will change, and we will have a people’s vaccine. 

According to a survey conducted by People’s Vaccine, 70% of people living in G7 countries, including Belgium, want their government to act towards a TRIPS waiver. The people’s pressure is therefore now palpable within other Belgian parties. Some have stated their support, yet no concrete action has been taken. As of today, Belgium is still an opponent of the patents lift.

The WTO and the European Parliament are meeting today and tomorrow to decide on sharing vaccines patents with underprivileged countries. If they don’t vote in favour of the TRIPS waiver, and if the current vaccination rate continues, it could take low-income countries 57 years to fully vaccinate their population, according to The People’s Vaccine campaign group. 

Featured Image Credit: GUE/NGL

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