African nations should build capacity to produce vaccines on the continent and work with pharmaceutical companies to ensure that the raw materials needed to produce the inoculations are available, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said.
While a waiver on the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights that is being discussed at the WTO is seen as a way to improve the supply of COVID-19 vaccines to the world’s least inoculated continent, Okonjo-Iweala said that only a handful of African countries have the capacity to produce the life-saving drugs.
“There [are] a handful of countries — maybe Tunisia, Morocco to some extent, Senegal, South Africa — where we have some capacity; that’s why we are importing 99 percent of our vaccines,” Okonjo-Iweala said in a Webinar hosted by the UN Economic Commission for Africa.
“If we get IP [intellectual property] today, we won’t be able to do anything with it because we don’t have investment, we don’t have manufacturing capacity,” she said.
WTO members are divided over the question of whether a waiver to the its intellectual property rules for vaccines is the best way to expand access to life-saving drugs in the developing world.
Negotiations are moving very slowly as parties try to come to a “pragmatic, sensible agreement that allows developing countries access to technology, know-how and find a solution on intellectual property that does not also disincentivize research and negotiations,” she said.
A meeting with heads of vaccine manufacturers including Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer Inc, Moderna Inc, the makers of Russia’s Sputnik jab and Sinopharm Group Co at the WTO last week showed that companies are interested in boosting investments on the continent, she said.
Johnson & Johnson is having its inoculations produced on a so-called fill-finish basis in South Africa by Aspen Pharmacare Holdings Ltd, where Aspen packages the doses using ingredients supplied by Johnson & Johnson.
Pfizer last week signed a similar agreement with the Biovac Institute in Cape Town and Sinopharm’s doses are made in Egypt.
So far just 1.4 percent of Africa’s 1.2 billion people have been fully vaccinated against the disease.
Africa needs adequate access to vaccines for a sustainable economic recovery, Okonjo-Iweala said. The continent-wide economy last year contracted for the first time in a quarter century as restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 weighed on activity.
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