Razina Munshi FM Fox editor & columnist
Picture: REUTERS/Nicky Loh
Picture: REUTERS/Nicky Loh

Human Rights Watch (HRW) last week became the latest global organisation to back a call by SA and India for universal access to a Covid-19 vaccine and the waiver of some global intellectual property rules.

The appeal, heard at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) last month, is made with the understanding that unless there are fundamental changes to the rules governing the manufacture, distribution and pricing of global vaccines, an ugly scramble is guaranteed. Countries have already been pitted against each other to secure Covid-19 tests and personal protective equipment.

Instead of a competition-driven approach, SA and India have called for co-operation. They want the WTO to let countries choose not to grant or enforce patents and other intellectual property rights related to Covid-19 tests, treatments and vaccines for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s an ambitious plea, and it comes as wealthy nations have already paid billions to secure doses of vaccines that no-one yet knows are effective.

In fact, SA and India are among the nations that have been elbowed out of the way by a group of wealthy nations representing 13% of the global population which have, according to Oxfam, secured about 51% of available stocks of potential vaccines.

SA has not ordered experimental vaccines. But the UK, for example, has already placed orders for six different experimental Covid-19 vaccines being developed by pharmaceutical companies, giving it a potential stockpile of 340-million doses.

Last week Bloomberg reported that Moderna, the US firm that’s among the few companies in the late stages of developing a Covid vaccine, has already received $1.1bn in customer deposits for the shots during the third quarter of 2020.

Instead, SA has left vaccine negotiations to Covax, a global arrangement co-ordinated by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and an international vaccine alliance called Gavi.

Finding support

SA and India’s call has been supported by the WHO. Director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted in October: “[The] WHO welcomes SA and India’s recent proposal to [the] WTO to ease international and intellectual property agreements on Covid-19 vaccines, treatments and tests to make the tools available to all who need them at an affordable cost.”

When SA and India’s proposal was discussed at the Trips (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) Council of the WTO on October 15, it was supported by a number of African countries and developing Asian nations like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Nepal, while countries such as China, Turkey, the Philippines and Colombia requested more information about the proposal.

However, it failed to pass after being rejected by several developed countries and blocs, including the US, the EU, Canada, Japan, the UK, Australia and Switzerland, according to media reports.

The UK’s statement labelled the proposal “counterproductive,” and said it was “an extreme measure to address an unproven problem”.

But support has also come from international bodies. HRW last week released a report calling on governments that spend public money on Covid-19 vaccines to take measures to ensure that the scientific benefits of the research they fund are shared widely “to prevent the unacceptable prioritisation of profit for some over benefit for all”, and to maximise vaccine availability and affordability in the shortest possible time.

Oxfam, Amnesty International, the Joint UN Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAids) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have supported the call. MSF’s Leena Menghaney says: “Treatment providers and governments have already had to grapple with intellectual property barriers to essential products such as masks, ventilator valves and reagents for test kits.” Vaccine nationalism, she says, is no way to tackle a pandemic.

And a group of local medical academics have appealed to President Cyril Ramaphosa to galvanise support for it.

Of course the plea won’t find support from pharma companies that are developing vaccines.

However, this doesn’t mean that no progress has been made to extend access. Some pharmaceutical companies have pledged to enable “timely availability” and “affordability for lower-income countries”.

AstraZeneca and Novavax have a deal with a manufacturer in India to allow millions of doses to be sold to lower-income countries at a fraction of the cost they expect to charge elsewhere. Such deals are welcome, but they are limited and fail to democratise access.

And unfortunately, countries that are slower to access the vaccine, even through no fault of their own, will be the last to really move on from the pandemic — at the cost of both lives and livelihoods.

* Munshi is News & Fox editor of the FM​

This is a roundup of the best Covid-19 news from the web, brought to you in today’s FM lockdown newsletter.

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