France has made a commitment to support President Cyril Ramaphosa’s drive to persuade leaders at both the upcoming G7 and G20 meetings to agree to a waiver on the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (Trips) agreement for Covid-19-related pharmaceutical interventions.
President Emmanuel Macron told an event on vaccine manufacturing in Africa on Friday evening at the University of Pretoria that South Africa could count on him to fix the inequalities associated with dealing with the virus.
“We have been advocating that Covid-19 vaccines must be a global public good. This is important for the stability of global healthcare. I will be alongside you on key issues and the main battles and on Trips agreements and IP [intellectual property]. You can count on me; you can count on France — we will deliver together,” he said.
Ramaphosa is leading a global campaign, supported by about 100 countries, in calling on the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to agree to a Trips waiver to increase equitable access to treatments, technologies, vaccines and therapeutics relating to Covid-19.
On 21 May, a number of African countries, as well as Bolivia, Fiji, India, Maldives, Mongolia, Pakistan and Venezuela submitted a revised request to the WTO for the waiver.
The parties told WTO that the preambular text was revised to reflect the concern of continuous mutations and the emergence of new variants and, “consequently, the many unknowns with respect to SARS-COV-2 and its variants and the global need for access, as well as the importance of diversifying production and supply”.
The proposal requests that the waiver stay in effect for the next three years.
The WTO general council will have to identify exceptional circumstances justifying the waiver for it to stand a chance. In November last year Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said that a small group of WTO members — Australia, Brazil, Canada, the EU, Japan, Norway, Switzerland, the UK, and the US — were withholding support that would help to build much-needed consensus on the proposal.
“Some of these countries have traditionally backed the interests of their pharmaceutical corporations through a proprietary IP system,” it said in a written communiqué to the WTO.
MSF said those countries were also peddling myths about the waiver, including that Trips and other IPs were not a barrier for Covid-19 medicines and technologies.
The organisation, backed by supporting countries, made an example of South Africa, which faced challenges accessing key chemical reagents for Covid-19 diagnostic testing because of proprietary protection on the machines and the reagents.
“The Swiss pharmaceutical corporation Roche rejected a request from the Netherlands to release the recipe of key chemical reagents needed for increasing production of diagnostic kits and only released it after facing pressure from the European Commission,” it said.
Ramaphosa and Macron may also have the support of the US, which did an about-turn on its position recently when it said that the country “partially” supported a waiver.
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures. The administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for Covid-19 vaccines.
“We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the WTO needed to make that happen. Those negotiations will take time, given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved,” Tai’s office said.
Ramaphosa has been invited to the upcoming G7 meeting on 11 June in the UK.
“We will talk to our colleagues at the G7 and G20 and get them to agree that we are at war and we have one enemy. We are not against innovation — we are saying let us have this waiver for a limited amount of time. If saving lives is important to all of us — this should not be too much. The waiver needs to be put firmly on the WTO agenda so that it is approved,” Ramaphosa told the audience at the Friday night event.
The French president, however, emphasised that there were other matters that also needed urgent attention, relating to export regulations on vaccines and pricing stability.
“We need common pricing and transparency. Poor countries are probably paying much more,” Macron said.
Pharmaceutical companies like Aspen and BioVac were among the private sector speakers to build a case for Africa’s capacity to manufacture vaccines and treatments.
Dr Morena Makhoana, chief executive of the Biovac Institute, said that Africa was ready to produce.
“We must disprove the notion that Africa can’t handle complex production. We’re open for business; we need partnerships to make this a reality,” he said.
Ramaphosa said that the vaccines on the market were not enough for Africa and that production was not living up to expectations.
Twenty-two countries are yet to vaccinate 1% of the population; meanwhile, 124 countries have received less than 5% of all the vaccine doses in the world.
“Despite six vaccines being tested on the continent, African countries have had to join the back of the queue; Africa has vaccines for only 2% of its population,” said another speaker, Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim, co-director of the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa.
At the same time, Ramaphosa reminded Friday’s attendants that South Africa was once sued for producing antiretroviral medication to treat Aids.
“They then decided to put people before profits and that changed the fight against HIV/Aids in Africa. This is another time where lives have to be put ahead of the massive profits that can be made so that we can defeat Covid-19,” he said.
Ramaphosa and Macron are expected to use the G7 meeting to set the tone for the G20 meeting in October 2021 while the WTO’s general council mulls over the latest request.