US announces support for COVID vaccine intellectual property waiver – what does that mean for Africa?

Nii Ntreh May 07, 2021
Joe Biden visited Kenya when he was vice president. He meets people affected by the 1998 bombing of the US embassy. Photo: AFP

On Wednesday, the Office of the United States Trade Representative announced the Joe Biden administration has decided to support the calls for a waiver on intellectual property (IP) protections sought by pharmaceutical companies for COVID vaccines.

According to Trade Ambassador Katharine Tai, “[T]his is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures…The [Biden] Administration’s aim is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible.”

The position of the US will undoubtedly put pressure on pharmaceutical companies who experienced uncomfortable readings on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) after the Trade Office’s statement. Meanwhile, the European Union (EU), which also formerly refused to back a waiver just like the US, is expected to rescind its decision.

The surprise announcement was greeted with delight by many on social media platforms who cited the need to ease IP restrictions for life-saving formulas. The argument has long been in the making since the world was forced to reckon with the once-in-a-century situation that has so far taken more than three million lives. Advocates for the waiver argue that IP protections for vaccine technology in a global pandemic flies in the face of moral reasoning especially because a substantial amount of what it took to make the vaccines was public-funded.

The World Trade Organization’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), agreed in 1995, was the legal impediment to liberalizing restrictions on COVID vaccine formulas. Among those who defended the maintenance of TRIPS were CEOs of pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft.

But in December of 2020, a proposal by South Africa and India to waive TRIPS for COVID vaccines was only supported by the likes of Russia, China and mainly developing nations. It is not clear what forced the change in mind for the United States although the worsening COVID situation in India has been mentioned along with pressure on the Biden government from the progressive half of the Democratic Party.

What This Means For Africa

Africa, where vaccine rollouts have now begun in majority of the continent’s nations,should be pleased by the news of the waiver. All African governments voted in favor of the proposal put together by South Africa and India. But public health advocate and research fellow at the New York University, Nana Kofi Quakyi, urged cautious optimism.

“The United States’ support of the TRIPS waiver is a first step towards scaling up global production of COVID-19 vaccines. The text of the proposal still needs to be negotiated, and the waiver itself is still contingent on the support of many nations that are still opposed to it at this time,” he told me from Accra, Ghana. 

Quakyi explained that if the waiver were to be granted, however, production capacity on the continent would still be a bottleneck.  There are currently fewer than 10 vaccine manufacturers spread across 5 nations: Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa as well as Tunisia.  These facilities produce fewer than 100 million doses a year, most of which are supplied to domestic markets with very little in the way of exports.

Most of that manufacturing capacity is also downstream production. What that means is Africa’s installed capacity is almost exclusively for packaging and labeling, or in some cases, fill and finish steps (the final phase of drugmaking).

On top of this, there is currently no significant upstream production in the form of actual drug substances like antigen or pharmaceutical ingredients. COVID-19 is accelerating conversations on the continent about the urgent need to scale up because the current charity model by which many African nations access vaccines has been shown to be woefully inadequate.

These efforts towards greater self-reliance will require a fully integrated approach that addresses financing, skills development, regulatory frameworks, physical facilities, knowledge sharing and technology transfers. Africa may not be out of the woods just yet.

Last Edited by:Nii Ntreh Updated: May 7, 2021


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