Africa urges patience on vaccine patent waiver

Implementing a waiver may take months as the WTO will require a consensus of its 164 member states.

10 May 2021 | Economics

The world is watching and people are dying. - Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, DG: WTO

NAIROBI - The African Union's health agency has welcomed US president Joe Biden's decision to waive intellectual property rights for Covis-19 vaccines, but counselled patience as the move would take time to translate into reality.

"It represents a very good step in the right direction [against the global pandemic]. But the results will not be tomorrow," John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, told a briefing.

"What we need now and urgently is vaccines that we can put in the arms of people while developing our own manufacturing capacity."

Africa, a continent of 1.3 billion people where most have insufficient healthcare, has struggled to vaccinate its population.

As of May 4, 37.6 million vaccine doses had been acquired by African countries, around 20.2 million of which had been administered, a coverage rate of 1.14%, according to Africa CDC data.

Access to vaccines and some hesitancy to take them among the general public have been important factors in the low level of inoculations, analysts say.

MOUNTING PRESSURE

Biden on Wednesday endorsed calls for a waiver on vaccine patents in a sharp reversal of the US position, bowing to mounting pressure from his own Democratic Party lawmakers and over 100 other countries. But the move upset big pharmaceutical firms that have been producing vaccines.

South Africa and India made the initial push for a vaccine waiver at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in October, gathering support from a large number of developing countries that see it as a vital step to making vaccines more widely available.

"Now this is a victory for South Africa. It goes to show the influence we have as a country, working together with others, that our voice and messages have weight," South African president Cyril Ramaphosa said in parliament on Thursday.

"Such a waiver should facilitate effective transfer of intellectual property."

Nkengasong said there are countries on the continent like Senegal, South Africa, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt with the platforms needed to producing vaccines but they needed support to do so. "With the right partnership, we can get there."

TIME CONSUMING

Implementing a waiver may take months as the WTO will require a consensus of its 164 member states.

WTO director general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala welcomed Biden's move on Thursday and urged talks on the new plan to start as soon as possible. "The world is watching and people are dying," she added.

"At a minimum, it's going to be a month or two," Clete Willems, a former Trump White House trade official who previously worked at the US trade mission to the WTO in Geneva, said of any possible agreement.

"Right now, there is no proposal on the table that would waive the TRIPS agreement simply for vaccines," he said, referring to the WTO's agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights that governs the transfer of property like movie rights or vaccine-manufacturing specifics.

REALISTIC

A more realistic goal may be completion of the agreement in time for the WTO's next ministerial conference, scheduled for Nov. 30 through Dec. 3, said Willems, now a trade partner at the Akin Gump law firm in Washington.

That would give vaccine producers more time to boost global supplies which could help contain the virus and ease pressure for the waiver.

Nkengasong called on those nations sceptical of such a move to be on the right side of history.

"As a continent, when this is all over, and it will be over, we are a resilient continent, we will remember not just the loud voices of those who did not support us, but we will also remember the silence of our friends in this battle." – Nampa/Reuters

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