European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said that the EU was ready to discuss a US-backed proposal to waive patents on Covid-19 vaccines.

But she stressed that Europe's priority would be to boost global supplies, and implicitly criticised the US and the UK for limiting vaccine exports.

As recently as two weeks ago, Ms von der Leyen told the New York Times, "I am not at all a friend of releasing patents," arguing the pharmaceutical industry must be rewarded for its innovation.

But supporters of a waiver argue that poor countries are struggling to get inoculation programmes while richer countries protect intellectual property rights of drugs giants.

"The European Union is also ready to discuss any proposal that addresses the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner," Ms von der Leyen told an online conference.

"And that's why we are ready to discuss how the US proposal for waiver on intellectual property protection for covered vaccines could help achieve that objective."

But she immediately stressed: "In the short run, however, we call upon all vaccine producing countries to allow exports and to avoid measures that disrupt supply chains."

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On Monday, European commissioner for industry Thierry Breton warned that when a company is given the patent to produce a new vaccine it takes more than a year to get production up to speed.

"Next year, when we've increased production in our factories, we can ask ourselves this question," he argued.

A senior European official told reporters that the patent issue would now be on the agenda at a two day EU summit meeting in Porto that begins tomorrow.

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said yesterday that the US government now supports calls for a global waiver on patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines while the pandemic rages.

President Joe Biden had been under pressure to back the move, which could help poorer nations produce cheaper generic versions of the latest jabs.

The World Health Organization's Special Envoy on Covid-19 welcomed the announcement as something for people to rejoice about.

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Claire Byrne, David Nabarro said determining the shape of licensing agreements is done to protect the standard of a company's vaccine and prevent reputational damage.

He said it is a "reasonable worry" that companies are worried about sub-standard production but that safeguards can be put in place to ensure every product produced is of high quality.

He said that there is a "real, real shortage" of vaccines and that while manufacturing capability is an issue, with "goodwill and the ability to work together we can take advantage of this in a good way".

Earlier, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said the Irish Government will be very supportive of the position taken by the US government on intellectual property rights.

He said Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has already "made some strong statements" and the Government will be pushing within the EU for a global approach on this.

The Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association has said the move would not boost production capacity for Covid-19 vaccines and would instead set back the medicines innovation agenda.

Russia supports lifting of vaccine waiver

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he supported the idea of a waiver on patent protections for coronavirus vaccines as Russia registered its fourth virus jab called Sputnik Light.

"We are hearing from Europe an idea that, in my opinion, deserves attention - namely, to remove patent protections from vaccines against Covid-19 altogether," Mr Putin said during a televised meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova.

"Russia would of course support such an approach," Mr Putin said, urging Ms Golikova to work out the logistics.

"As I have said many times... We should not think about how to extract maximum profit, but about how to ensure people's safety."

Russia has registered three coronavirus vaccines, and has now approved a fourth - a single-dose version of its Sputnik V jab called Sputnik Light.

Moscow has actively pushed Sputnik V - named after the Soviet-era satellite - around the world, with more than 60 countries having approved it for use.

Russia registered the jab in August before results from large-scale clinical trials, but leading medical journal The Lancet has since said it is safe and more than 90% effective.

In addition to the Sputnik jabs, Russia has also registered two other homegrown vaccines - the EpiVacCorona and CoviVac.

Additional reporting AFP