Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Picture: WIKIMEDIA
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Picture: WIKIMEDIA

The head of the World Trade Organization (WTO) said on Monday she hopes that by December the body’s members will have reached a “pragmatic” solution over whether to waive Covid-19 vaccine patents.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said she saw “movement on both sides” — referring to proponents of a waiver and those who have objections — and was hopeful of a framework agreement on the waiver issue, technological transfers and better access to vaccines for developing countries.

December is “an outer limit” for such a deal, the WTO director-general said at a briefing with journalists during a visit to Italy, which this year chairs the Group of 20 nations.

“I hope there will be a meeting of minds on how developing countries get easier access to vaccines, higher volumes and more manufacturing capacity,” she said, repeatedly stressing the need for “pragmatism” in negotiations.

US President Joe Biden last week backed a call from India and SA to waive patent protection for Covid-19 vaccines, angering pharmaceutical companies and triggering opposition from several European countries. Experts say waivers could take years to negotiate, and would not deal with the immediate need to manufacture more doses fast.

Okonjo-Iweala said she understood proponents of the waiver were preparing a revised proposal which she hoped would be presented to the WTO “as soon as possible” so that by the end of May all sides are sitting down to negotiate.

It was possible that those with doubts about the waiver were also preparing texts, she said.

President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Monday that if wealthy nations hogged Covid-19 shots while millions in poor countries died waiting for them it would amount to “vaccine apartheid”.

Ramaphosa called on South Africans to support the waiver in his weekly newsletter, saying vaccines should be “a global public good”.

“It is about affirming our commitment to the advancement of equality and human rights, not just in our own country but around the world,” he wrote.

“A situation in which the populations of advanced, rich countries are safely inoculated while millions in poorer countries die in the queue would be tantamount to vaccine apartheid.”

Sub-Saharan Africa has administered the fewest vaccines relative to its population of any region, with about eight doses per 1,000 people against 150 doses per 1,000 people globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Ramaphosa recalled that 20 years ago SA faced off against “big pharma” over efforts to import and manufacture affordable generic antiretroviral medicines to treat people with HIV/Aids.

“Years later, the world is in the grip of another deadly pandemic in the form of Covid-19. And once again, SA is waging a struggle that puts global solidarity to the test,” he said.

Ramaphosa said SA is one of only five countries on the African continent able to manufacture vaccines and that there is a need for new capacity to be built.



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