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Things looking up to expand vaccine manufacture in Africa, but may take a while

Support to temporarily lift intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines by the United States, France and New Zealand is the clearest sign yet the proposal might see the light of day.

By Gitura Mwaura

Request for the waiver was initially submitted by South Africa and India in October 2020 but has since been co-sponsored by 60 other countries. Rwanda has also been expressing its voice. The co-sponsors are now proposing a three-year waiver.

Things are looking up, however, though there’s some way to go. While the European Union has pledged one billion dollars to build vaccine manufacturing hubs in Africa, a handful rich of countries home to pharmaceutical companies – Japan, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Australia and Brazil – still harbour strong reservations about the patent waiver that will allow the manufacture.

And even if they do finally come on board, it may take months before details of the proposal are worked out. It may even take years if one assumes the time it took to negotiate flexibilities that enabled access to cheap HIV drugs.

Crucially, there must be a consensus among all the 164 World Trade Organisation (WTO) member states. This means only one member need to disagree with the proposal to scuttle the whole thing.

Germany, for example, is opposed to the waiver, saying it has “significant implications for vaccine production as a whole.”

It claims that “the protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so in the future”.

This argument, that allowing the patent waiver will disincentivise research and development (R&D), and consequently innovation, has already been shown to be wanting.

It’s more a red herring to ring fence Big Pharma and their profits than it is convincing.

That is why US President Joe Biden’s backing of the waiver has been touted as monumental. His country hosts the biggest pharma industry. And where the US leads, others are bound to follow.

But countries like the United Kingdom and Germany still need some convincing. They are stuck on the notion that lifting the patents will hinder R&D and send the wrong message to industry investors.

Developing countries at the ongoing discussions at the WTO’s TRIPS Council have consistently shown why the argument is spurious.

They point out that the search for an effective treatment or vaccine remains a global effort involving multiple actors and not the effort of the pharmaceutical industry alone to claim all patent rights.

Governments and public funding agencies around the world poured billions of US dollars of public money to support COVID-19 R&D, especially for drugs and vaccines.

More than US$12 billion of public funding, for example, was poured into the research and development of the six COVID-19 vaccines, including AstraZeneca, Johnson&Johnson, Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.

As the co-sponsors of the patent waiver have insisted in their submissions, this fact makes the vaccines a public good to be shared with everyone everywhere unreservedly.

The public funding undermines the argument that lifting intellectual property rights will compromise innovation.

It also took ordinary people around the world including in Africa who took the risk by joining the clinical trials.

This had nothing to do with intellectual property, but the conscience and common sense of contributing to the finding of a cure for all.

Thus the lament that to a large extent no conditions for access or affordability were included as a precondition to any of the funding that helped come up with the vaccines.

It is this shortcoming that supporting the waiver and the EU pledge to build vaccination manufacturing hubs in Africa could help address.

Some capacity already exists. South Africa, for example, has already secured a vaccine manufacturing deal, while Egypt, Morocco, Senegal and Tunisia have utilisable capacity.

Others under consideration are Nigeria, Ethiopia, even Kenya which has some capacity though for veterinary vaccines. Rwanda has also expressed interest.

As for the adequacy of raw materials for the vaccines, as some experts have wondered, it is part of the same solution with the waiver to ensure the ramping up as suggested by the US Trade Representative Kathrine Tai and echoed by the International Monetary Fund.

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