Patel: WTO deal not first prize, but will help SA against new Covid variants

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Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition Ebrahim Patel.
Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition Ebrahim Patel.
Matthew Brewer/Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images
  • A new WTO deal means South Africa and other developing countries can produce Covid-19 vaccines without the permission of patent holders.  
  • While India and South Africa wanted a patent waiver on Covid-19 tests and treatments as well, Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel says the compromise deal was a practical outcome.
  • But he says the waiver is worth little to SA unless more countries buy vaccines from local producer Aspen.

A new World Trade Organisation deal that will partially waive patents for Covid-19 vaccines was not first prize for South Africa – but will help the country react quicker to new variants, said Minister of Trade and Industry Ebrahim Patel.

South Africa and India have fought since 2020 to set aside all patents related to Covid-19 treatments, tests and vaccines.

Following tough talks this week at the WTO, a new agreement was struck on Friday to waive patents on Covid-19 vaccines for developing countries for the next five years.

READ | New WTO deal waters down vaccine IP rights - but it came too late

Developing countries can produce vaccines without getting the permission of the patent holders. 

They can also get direct access to the dossiers that pharmaceutical companies have filed about the vaccines with regulatory authorities. This means they won’t have to depend on getting the information from the companies themselves, which will help speed up production.

If new variants emerge, South Africa will be able to more cheaply and quickly replicate new vaccines developed by the large pharmaceutical companies specifically for these new variants. Patel said as a result, South Africa will be ready for new variants.

In addition, producers in developing countries are now allowed to export 100% of their vaccines to other developing markets – scrapping a previous limit of 49%.

The new deal is not what South Africa and India wanted: it excludes patents on Covid-19 tests and life-saving medicines for patients suffering from the virus.

But Patel said South Africa chose a practical outcome, as the WTO can only reach agreements by consensus – even if a single country disagreed, there wouldn’t have been a deal.

"We recognised we won’t get first prize," Patel said. "In negotiations, you don’t choose your partners."

He said many developed countries were heartless at the beginning of the epidemic, and that pharmaceutical companies  extract enormously high prices for medicines.

READ | OPINION | New WTO deal is a slap in the face for poorer countries

SA's vaccine output

But Patel said the big challenge now was to create a demand for vaccines manufactured in Africa.

Pharmaceutical company Aspen is producing Covid-19 vaccines under licence from Johnson & Johnson in Gqeberha, but still hasn’t received a single order from other countries and now is considering closing the facility.

Patel said government is trying to convince the Gavi and Covax schemes set up by the World Health Organisation to procure vaccines for developing countries, to buy from Aspen.

But he said the schemes said they were locked in with previous suppliers.

"Unless they support [South Africa vaccine production], the value of the waiver is very limited."

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