Africa Welcomes Washington’s About-Face On IP Waiver – But More Immediate Measures Needed To Get Vaccines To Continent
Dr Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization regional director for Africa

IBADAN – The US government’s decision to support a temporary waiver on intellectual property related to COVID-19 vaccine patents & other knowhow in the World Trade Organization (WTO) is a positive development, said key stakeholders in Africa’s health ecosystem on Thursday.  

While US President Joe Biden’s reversal of the previous US position against the waiver will not result in an overnight supply of more vaccines, it will likely advance Africa’s local vaccine manufacturing agenda, said John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa CDC during a press briefing.

“We have to be very careful that we do not translate the waiver to something that will happen immediately. It will take time for that to translate but it offers a unique opportunity for a continental manufacturing agenda to advance,” Nkengasong said.

The waiver in the enforcement of patents, copyright, industrial designs, and trade secrets, for COVID-related health products for the duration of the pandemic was originally proposed by South Africa and India in October.  Until now, the proposal, supported by some 60 low- and middle-income countries, has been stiffly opposed by a group of high-income countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Japan and Australia – which have major pharma industry interests. 

At the briefing, WHO’s Africa Regional Direcctor, Matshidiso Moeti, also praised the bold announcement by US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, calling it a potential a game changer for Africa that could unlock millions of vaccine doses and save more lives on the continent.  

But she cautioned that Wednesday’s announcement by the US does not  guarantee the global patent rules for COVID-19 vaccines will be lifted immediately.

More Than Waivers Needed

And even if it is finally approved by the WTO, even a temporary waiver on COVID-19 vaccines will however not be enough to jump-start local vaccine production, Moeti said:

“For local production to really take off, investments will be needed in technology transfer capacity building and quality assurance, backed by strong regulatory systems, and private sector partnerships.”  .

With the right support and proper financing local vaccine production could start as early as the first quarter of 2022 at the Pasteur Institute of Senegal, according to Nkengasong.

“But it requires partnerships; it requires incentivising the process by providing and rallying financing. Those are some of the things that we need, to get us to where we need to be,” Nkengasong said.

In the short term, Africa needs to surmount the challenges posed by delays in the delivery of doses through the COVAX Facility— due to the decision of the Indian government to ban the export of vaccine doses to enable it to control the devastating surge in the number of cases in the country.

India reported 412,431 new COVID cases on 5 May, taking the total number of confirmed cases in the country to over 21.1 million while Africa has reported less than 4.6 million cases during the entire pandemic period.

Africa’s Vaccine Update

A Nigerian healtcare worker getting his COVID-19 vaccination

Also speaking at the press briefing, Thabani Maphosa, Gavi Managing Director for Country Programmes, agreed with Moeti that the timeliness of COVID-19 vaccine doses will be suboptimal to protect people from severe disease and death.

So far, nearly 38 million vaccine doses have been acquired by African Union Member States, with approximately 20.2 million doses having been administered  to date, according to Afrca CDC.

“This figure corresponds to a coverage rate of 1.14% at the continental level, with 0.39% of the population having received a full vaccine regimen (up by 0.02 percent points from the previous week),” Africa CDC stated.

It further revealed that African countries have used about 54% of the available vaccine supply.

COVAX is Working but not Fast Enough

Thabani Maphosa, Gavi Managing Director for Country Programmes

In Africa, COVAX has delivered over 18 million doses of vaccines to 41 countries on the continent and globally, it has delivered almost 40 million doses for lower and middle income countries worldwide, according to Maphosa.

Maphosa, although expressing confidence in the effectiveness of the COVAX Facility’s, saying vaccine doses were held up due to the crisis in India – but that factor was beyond COVAX’s control.

“Vaccines are not coming as fast as we would have wanted them to. Our first priority is to help countries that have already received their first deliveries to receive another set of doses, so that they can administer the second dose.” 

Countries Hit by Delays Will Be Prioritized

Countries, including Ghana and Nigeria, that have been hit by delays will be prioritised once supplies resume.

“We are taking a number of measures to get deliveries flowing again. We are in close contact with the Serum Institute of India (SII), who have reassured us that while they will prioritise supplies to India, the COVAX Facility is next in line,” said Maphosa.

Beyond SII, COVAX is securing vaccine doses for Africa from elsewhere including vaccine donations from France (over 100,000 doses to Mauritania), and Sweden (over one million doses donated to COVAX).

Earlier this week, Health Policy Watch also reported  that COVAX has signed an agreement with Moderna for 500 million doses of its mNA vaccine. This development, Maphosa said, is a demonstration of “a very solid progress”.

A statement by Gavi on Monday showed supply via the agreement will take place from the second half of 2021 through to 2022, with options in place to address the risks of variants.

So far, COVAX has raised a total of $6.5 billion from donors, and is also seeking a further $1.7 billion in order to secure 1.8 billion doses of vaccines.

“We are telling our donors and our manufacturers that supplies need to come fast. It is only by working together that we will end this pandemic. But it is also important that for those vaccines that have been delivered, progress must be shown in terms of getting them to the arms of the patients,” Maphosa said.  

Moeti urged countries to prioritise administering doses to as many high-risk people as possible, as soon as possible.

“We must get all the doses we have into people’s arms,” she said. “It’s a race against time and the virus. Given the limited supply we recommend that countries prioritise giving the first dose to as many high-risk people as possible in the shortest amount of time.”

New variants of the coronavirus  also place Africa at risk of a third wave. The B.1.617 variant that was first found in India has been reported in at least one African country. The B1.351 strain, first found in South Africa, is spreading in 23 African countries and the B1.1.7 strain, first found in the United Kingdom, has been found in 20 countries.

With new variants circulating, low vaccination levels, population fatigue in adhering to preventive measures, and easing of restrictions, WHO noted that the conditions are present for a resurgence.

“The tragedy in India does not have to happen here in Africa, but we must all be on the highest possible alert. Governments must maintain strong surveillance and detection systems, reassess and bolster their treatment capacities, step up the supply of critical medicines, including medical oxygen and ensure there are enough beds for severely ill patients.” said Moeti.

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