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South Africa at the forefront of the COVID-19 vaccine IP waiver debate

Written by Marcia Zali

IP waiver and BRICS: India and South Africa are calling for a temporary waiver of Intellectual Property (IP) rights for COVID-19 vaccines and treatment.

It is hoped that the proposal for an IP waiver from the two nations will boost efforts in the fight against the pandemic. If successful, the proposal will ensure access to affordable medical products including vaccines and medicines. A waiver would also allow the scaling-up of research, development, manufacturing, and supply of medical products essential to combating COVID-19. The South Africa-India proposal has the backing of over 100 of the 164 World Trade Organisation’s members.

Speaking at a BRICS webinar hosted by the South African government, SA’s ambassador to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Xolelwa Mlumbi-Peter noted that Africa was strategically vulnerable. She said COVID-19 had showed that Africa could no longer rely on imports.

“What we are proposing is nothing new in the WTO framework. The framework does state that in exceptional circumstances, the waiver can be implemented,” said Mlumbi-Peter.

The BRICS webinar was also supported by other industry players who also made contributions to the discussion about a waiver of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement.

IP waiver and access for Africa

So far, over two billion vaccines have been administered globally, the bulk of which are being manufactured in rich countries like China, the United States of America (USA), and Germany.  Nearly 60 million have been supplied to Africa. Unequal access, vaccine nationalism and supply constraints are some of the challenges that the South Africa-India proposal will seek to address. IP barriers have been identified as a major obstacle to ensuring that the global demand for vaccines is met. According to Mlumbi-Peter, the scope of the TRIPS waiver was changed as members realised there was an urgent need for a multilateral response.

“In the new text, we have clarified that the waiver will be related to COVID-19 related diagnostics, treatment, and pharmaceutical products. What we are asking for is a targeted waiver related to the scope. We are looking for a temporary waiver related to COVID-19. The waiver will be applicable for at least 3 years,” added Mlumbi-Peter.

WTO can decide to terminate IP waiver

The General Council in the WTO can decide on the termination date of the waiver if the exceptional circumstances change in the proposed period of between 3-7 years. The process will commence on Thursday and is expected to conclude by the end of July.

A senior executive at pharmaceutical company Aspen Pharmacare, Dr Stavros Nicolaou said the current situation was unacceptable. Dr Nicoloau said the current model where African countries were given loans to procure vaccines would not solve the problem.

“We need the technological know-how and skills transfers. We are calling for a reorientation and reconfiguration of the vaccine procuring dynamics,” said Dr Nicolaou.

Aspen signed an agreement with Johnson and Johnson (J&J) to manufacture the vaccine in Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape.

Recall of J&J vaccines

The production of the J&J vaccines was delayed following an investigation by the US Food and Drug Authority, which led to a recall of the vaccines that were found to have been contaminated at the manufacturing facility at Emergent BioSolutions in Baltimore.

“The recall was a disappointment,” Dr Nicolaus said.

He said there was going to be a delay in the manufacturing of the vaccines, but they [Aspen] would make up for it in the short term. “We will scale up to 100 000 manufactured vaccines or more,” he said.

This is after a suspension in April of the very same vaccine due to safety concerns now proven to be completely unrelated to the vaccine.

While the CEO of biopharmaceutical company Biovac, Dr Morena Mokhoana argued that Africa had the capability to manufacture the COVID-19 vaccines. “We are not necessarily starting from scratch. What we do need are partners that are willing to partner with us,” he said. He further added that these capabilities expanded beyond COVID-19 and that each local manufacturer would choose where they were most competent. – Health-e News

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Marcia Zali