Africans should play vaccine geo-politics right to survive the next pandemic

By Obedgiu Samuel

In June 2022, the World Trade Organization finally arrived at an agreement on the controversial TRIPS waiver. Member states agreed on a deal that temporarily removes intellectual property barriers around patents for COVID-19 vaccines.  #WhisperEyeNews

It’s now apparent that the WTO’s developing nation members have a right to override exclusive patents on COVID-19 vaccines, for a period of five years, due to the Covid 19 public health emergency. This will give greater flexibility in manufacturing vaccines for export to other developing nations – something that is bureaucratically complex and difficult under the normative TRIPS rules.

As of January 2023, there are only 5 African countries with vaccine capabilities. These are Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa, and Tunisia. These are the only African countries with companies that can package and label vaccines. Some of these companies can also do a process called “fill and finish,” which means getting vaccines ready for distribution.

However, currently, no African country can do “end-to-end manufacturing,” which means making vaccines from start to finish; from creating the anti-gen, all the way to packaging it. If African countries are to manufacture already existing vaccines on the market, the first step was securing a TRIPS patent waver on the vaccine’s intellectual property, which was granted last year.

This will include the big pharmaceutical companies sharing their trade secrets with other countries so that they can make the vaccines without legal consequences that come with intellectual property infringement.

It’s no surprise that the European Union, Germany, and the UK opposed this Covid 19 patent waiver move. If there is any lesson that African countries should learn from this Covid 19 vaccination disparity, is that we Africans are on our own. Geo-politics is run on interests and not on ideals of fairness and generosity.

The global powers are more confident with ideas like COVAX that don’t enhance African capabilities for self-reliance but continued dependence. In as much as COVAX was necessary, it hasn’t been sufficient. It just mirrors the failures of a global health paradigm that for too long has relied on charity rather than solidarity, elevating the concept of response over building resilience. These are the kind of interventions that the global powers are comfortable with.

Africans should understand that in the current global order, market forces will continue to aid the distribution of vaccines. These vaccines were developed by the private sector that must generate a profit. Only those countries that can afford vaccines will continue to get them. If African governments keep under-investing in the health sector, we shall never get access to cutting-edge services during any pandemic.

It’s surprising that Covid 19 hasn’t enabled our governments to increase investment in the health sector. For example, in Uganda, there is little difference in investment in the health sector after Covid 19. More investment is geared toward enhancing political patronage networks and regime security.

Securing a TRIPS waiver isn’t enough to make Africa resilient towards any pandemic. Africa needs to invest in the technologies and capacities involved in vaccine development. Africa needs to train hundreds of people to do vaccine development. That means from making the antigen to managing facilities using newly developed technology and equipment along with regulating, packing, and distributing vaccines. This needs a huge investment.

According to Perviz Dhanani, the managing director of the universal corporation limited, it would take an investment of about $150 million and licensing commitments from governments for Africans to develop laboratories that can make Africans rely on African vaccine development capacities during the next pandemic. Governments should agree to support already existing local African pharmaceutical companies by buying a certain number of vaccines from them. This will stop global big pharma from pushing them out of business. However, this will come with consequences of retaliation from western governments.

For this strategy to work, on the continental level, African politicians should speak and act on this as a unit because the political consequences of individual countries doing this alone are real. The west doesn’t like a self-sufficient Africa.  

Agricultural Scientist and Environmental Activist


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