South Africa is once again leading calls for waiver of intellectual rights for Covid-19 vaccines.
South Africa has, alongside India, submitted a proposal to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) for a temporary waiver of certain aspects of intellectual property rights to ensure wider access of technologies to produce vaccines and medicines.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said that the idea was to scale up local production of medicines and vaccines so that they were accessible to all. This step aims to empower all countries, rich and poor, to fight the Covid-19 pandemic and avert what he said would be tantamount to “vaccine apartheid.”
“The waiver proposal currently enjoys the support of more than 100 countries. Last week the US government announced its support for the proposal, which will give the current negotiations added momentum.
The enforcement of intellectual property rights is critical to research and development and innovation in the quest for human progress,” Ramaphosa said.
Developing nations, where Covid-19 cases are soaring and vaccination figures concerningly low, are at the mercy of big pharma.
Ramaphosa said that South Africa waged a similar war 20 years ago when the country was in the grip of the HIV/Aids pandemic and sought to enforce a law allowing the country to import and manufacture affordable generic antiretroviral medication.
“In response, representatives of the pharmaceutical industry sued our government, arguing that such a move violated the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). This is a comprehensive multilateral agreement on intellectual property,” said Ramaphosa. The pharmaceutical companies however dropped the lawsuit in 2001 after massive opposition by government and civil society.
“As a country, we stood on principle, arguing that access to life-saving medication was fundamentally a matter of human rights. The case affirmed the power of transnational social solidarity. Several developing countries soon followed our lead. This included implementing an interpretation of the WTO Agreement on TRIPS that allowed them to import and manufacture generic antiretrovirals,” Ramaphosa said.
Currently, said Ramaphosa, 55% of the existing vaccine manufacturing capacity was located in East Asia, 40% in Europe and North America, and less than 5% in Africa and South America.
“South Africa is one of only five countries on the continent with vaccine production capacity. Although we have secured enough vaccine doses to reach ‘population immunity’, there will continue to be a need for vaccines.
We are therefore preparing to bolster global vaccine manufacturing for Covid-19 and other major diseases. Existing facilities need to be repurposed and new capacity built,” he said.
“I call on all South Africans to support this effort, and in particular civil society organisations that played a leading role during the HIV/Aids pandemic,” Rmaphosa added.
Ramaphosa said that the temporary waiver South Africa and India were seeking was necessary at this time as it was in direct response to an emergency.
Calls for the waiver comes as India suffers with new Covid-19 cases holding close to record highs as calls widen for a national lockdown in the South Asian country.
The world’s second most populous country has recorded the second highest number of Covid-19 infections, preceded by the United States.
As of Monday, May 10, it had recorded a cumulative 22,662,575 Covid-19 cases and nearly half a million Covid-19 related deaths.
The country was the first to record over 400 000 new Coronavirus cases in a single day this May – setting a record daily high of 414 433.
India on Saturday also reported its highest ever single-day Covid-19 death toll. India's health ministry reported 4187 fatalities.
Meanwhile, the signs of a third wave are beginning to rear its head in SA.
SA last Wednesday recorded more than 2000 new Covid-19 cases in a single day for the first time since mid-February.
The second wave of infections in the country was progressively worse than the first and it is anticipated that this trend will persist with the looming third wave.
“This is an unprecedented situation. It requires that all intellectual property, knowledge, technology and data related to COVID-19 health technologies be put at the disposal of all. If we as the international community are truly committed to human rights and the values of equality and non-discrimination, vaccines should be viewed as a global public good,” the president said.
Ramaphosa warned that unequal access to vaccines where populations of advanced, rich countries were safely inoculated while millions in poorer countries died in the queue would be tantamount to vaccine apartheid.
“It will set a devastating precedent in our quest to realise a more egalitarian world and our ability to handle future pandemics,” he said.
India is currently experiencing a crippling second wave of Covid-19 infections. To date over 246 000 people have succumbed to the virus.
Of India's 1.3 billion population, 34.1 million (2.5%) have been fully vaccinated and 133.4 million (9.8%) have received at least one dose of vaccine.
The Serum Institute of India struck a deal with AstraZeneca to manufacture and stockpile its Covid-19 vaccine last year, but lately has been accused of failing to reach its target of producing 100 million doses a month. It produces 70 million doses.
South Africa, on the other hand, has recorded 54 735 deaths. Only 382 480 health workers (0.7%) of the 60 million population have been vaccinated.
Speaking in the National Assembly last Thursday, Ramaphosa pointed out that SA's slow vaccination rollout was in no way due to its own failures.
SA was forced to halt the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine amid concerns over rare blood clots.
“The mishaps we have suffered have been completely out of our hands. The death of six people in the United States brought our own authority to stop the vaccination process, (which) was completely unforeseen.”
Six vaccinated women aged between 18 and 48 (out of a total of about seven million vaccinated women and men) developed a rare type of blood clot alongside a condition that lowered their blood platelet levels.