Will Africa access Covid-19 vaccine easily?


New vaccines are often prohibitively expensive. FILE PHOTO | NMG

As pharmaceutical companies work round the clock to find a cure and a vaccine for the corona virus, Oxfam has come up with a petition signed by current and former Heads of State and Government, and other leaders calling on Health ministers to guarantee free access to a safe and effective vaccine to all countries when it’s finally developed.

New vaccines are often prohibitively expensive and have become more costly when a couple of newer generation versions are already exhausting governments’ budget. This is largely due to their monopoly situation and a recent report published by Medicins sans Frontieres (MSF) suggests that the new generation of vaccines are prone to high concentration of patent evergreening.

A recent example is the Ebola vaccine, Everbo, which was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration and European Commission late last year. The Democratic Republic of Congo, the highest risk country, is yet to get access to the vaccine against the deadly disease whose mortality rate is 50 percent.

Now, the petition reads well appealing to the moral code of humanity premised on the argument that access to drugs that can cure and protect should be a basic human right issue.

Access to vaccines and treatments should be treated as a global public good in the interests of all humanity. In reality, the petition is simply a political statement devoid of the real barriers inhibiting access

The petition’s first proposal is that countries should be empowered and enabled to invoke the Workd Trade Organisation Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health to protect access to medicine for all.

So, let us look at the TRIPS Agreement and how it came about. When the world managed to find an anti-retroviral drug against HIV/Aids, there was a global uproar about commercial pharmaceuticals extracting monopoly rents from the ARV IP, making the drugs expensive and limiting their access to high-risk countries like South Africa that were being ravaged by the scourge.

Such companies maintaining global monopoly patents became a controversial and contested issue. In Doha, 2001, the WTO met to consider the issue and ruled that governments can override patents in a medical emergency matter. Therefore, governments were allowed to issue compulsory licences that allow a generic producer to produce only for its national market, but can’t export the generic drugs across borders, under the TRIPS Agreement.

At the time, this was seen as a huge victory but in truth governments have found it difficult to activate their new right. Very few compulsory licences have been issued so far and one of the biggest barriers to effecting this right has been the national capacity for poor countries to produce locally.

Therefore, it is surprising to see the petition caling for the TRIPS agreement to be enabled in the case of Covid-19 when the many barriers to its effectiveness are yet to be addressed.

Besides that, effecting the TRIPS agreement for vaccines is rather complex because there are no generic vaccines. Generic drugs can be made cheaply because the actual drug manufacturing process is only a small part of the cost associated with the medicine therefore mass production can be licensed but for vaccines it’s impossible to certify that vaccines produced by different manufacturers are identical.

Therefore, vaccine production cannot be licensed on “bioequivalence”. Pharmaceutical companies will have to give away their intellectual property when their IP rights is protected under WTO.

For developing countries, they have managed to circumvent high vaccine prices for their population through Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), which helps accelerate delivery of newer vaccines to poor counties shortening the lag time between them and the rich.

The development and production of vaccines is controlled by a handful of multinational pharmaceutical companies whose oligopoly status allows them to charge high prices. Now GAVI has entered an agreement with them to provide new vaccines at discounted prices for use in poor countries.

However, middle-income countries don’t qualify for GAVI-negotiated prices. Therefore, this avenue still creates an acute access problem, especially to lower middle-income countries in global south.