Ramaphosa welcomes US U-turn on vaccine patents, which may allow SA to ramp up production

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President Cyril Ramaphosa.
President Cyril Ramaphosa.
  • President Cyril Ramaphosa has welcomed the US decision to support a temporary patent waiver on Covid-19 vaccines.
  • This is a sharp reversal from the country's previous position, but a US trade representative said that the pandemic called for "extraordinary" measures.
  • If the World Trade Organization agrees to the waiver, it could mean that pharmaceutical producers in South Africa could make generic versions of the Covid-19 vaccines.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has welcomed the US decision to support a temporary patent waiver on Covid-19 vaccines.

Currently only pharmaceutical companies that own the patents for the vaccines are allowed to manufacture the jabs. But lifting the patent rights means that they will lose this exclusive right. Their formulas can then be used by other companies who have the required technology to manufacture generic versions of these vaccines, without fear that they will be sued.

Potentially, this means that vaccines can be manufactured at much greater scale in South Africa, and in other countries.

US support for the waiver comes as a surprise, as it is a sharp reversal of its previous position.

"This is a global health crisis," Katherine Tai, a US trade representative, said in a written statement. "The extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures."

The European Union still opposes the waiver, but US support should help to secure the necessary consensus at forthcoming World Trade Organization negotiations.

In a statement, Ramaphosa said the negotiations "provide the global community, and especially leading economies, with both an opportunity and the challenge to act in the best interest of all humanity".

"This can be achieved by focusing on the moral, legal and economic benefits of providing urgent, affordable and equitable protection to all people around the world in the face of a grave and indiscriminate threat to life and economic sustainability.  In light of the growing global consensus, we call on pharmaceutical companies to facilitate sharing of know-how and technology to enable a rapid increase in supply-capacity in order to save lives."

South Africa and India have been campaigning for the waiver since last year.

"For countries that do not currently have manufacturing capacity on certain medical technologies, the waiver could open up more supply options and avoid countries being reliant on only one or two suppliers," Ramaphosa said in a statement. "Where supply capacity currently exists, it can be repurposed to Covid-19 vaccine production and in this way improve the supply available to all nations."

He welcomed the US's support of "a temporary and targeted waiver" of intellectual property protections that apply to the vaccines. 

The share prices of big pharmaceutical companies including Pfizer, BioNTech Novavax and CureVac declined following the US decision. 

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