Africa: AU chair Ramaphosa calls out ‘painful irony’ of vaccine access

By Xolisa Phillip, in Johannesburg

Posted on January 28, 2021 14:20

FILE PHOTO: Coronavirus disease vaccination in Madrid © Syringes and a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. REUTERS/Susana Vera
Syringes and a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. REUTERS/Susana Vera

African Union (AU) chair Cyril Ramaphosa told a high-powered meeting of regional and global leaders about the “painful irony” of clinical trials being conducted on the continent, which is now struggling to gain access to supply.

“In other cases, vaccines are packaged right here on the continent, yet we struggle to access them for our populations,” said South Africa’s President Ramaphosa late on Wednesday 28 January during a webinar about Africa’s Covid-19 vaccine financing and deployment strategy.

“The painful irony is that some of the clinical trials for these vaccines were carried out in Africa,” added the AU chairperson.

Let TRIPS not trip up Africa and rest of Global South

The quest to secure adequate supply for the continent is being mounted at various levels and on multiple fronts, including through the AU and by individual countries. In terms of the latter, South Africa and India have proposed a Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver in response to the pandemic, according to Ramaphosa.

TRIPS is a legal instrument to which World Trade Organisation (WTO) members are bound.

But “[we] are calling on the … [WTO] to waive specific TRIPS obligations related to the prevention and treatment of Covid-19 for a defined period,” said Ramaphosa. “We need more countries to support this initiative.

A relaxation of TRIPS would enable countries in Africa, and elsewhere, to access active pharmaceutical ingredients and benefit from technology transfer, including the know-how to manufacture vaccines on the continent at a cheaper cost, explained Ramaphosa.

Strength in numbers

Despite the seemingly dire situation, the AU’s efforts to obtain adequate vaccine supplies for the region have been boosted by Afreximbank and mobile network operator MTN, for example.

The African trade finance institution has a $2bn guarantee facility for AU member states. In terms of contributions from companies, MTN donated $25m to aid Africa’s vaccine cause. Ramaphosa has appealed to other corporations on the continent and beyond to follow suit.

READ MORE South Africa: Ramaphosa makes a move to end Covid ‘vaccine nationalism’

Moussa Faki Mahamat, the AU Commission chairperson; Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organisation; David Malpass, the president of the World Bank Group; Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; and the ministers of finance and health of AU member states all participated in the webinar.

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres contributed to the meeting through a recorded message.

Stop the devastation

“The pandemic has caused great devastation on our continent,” said Ramaphosa, further highlighting the urgent need of sufficient vaccine supplies for the region.

In terms of numbers, Africa has:

  • A total of 3.4m confirmed Covid-19 cases and has recorded nearly 87,000 coronavirus-related deaths.
  • Although the continent is home to some 1.2 billion people, current estimates are that Africa will only access around 20% of the vaccines needed through the COVAX facility.
  • COVAX is a group of countries and partners pooling their vaccine procurement in order to try to strike better deals.

“We therefore found it necessary to complement this facility [COVAX] to ensure health workers are vaccinated soonest and countries reach herd immunity faster,” said Ramaphosa.

READ MORE The COVID-19 response is testament to the power of global cooperation

Through the work of the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team, the continent has secured a provisional 270m vaccine doses. “At least 50m will be available from April to June 2021,” Ramaphosa revealed.

The doses will come from three major suppliers: Pfizer, AstraZeneca (through the Serum Institute of India), and Johnson & Johnson.

Money for jabs

Citing the high cost of vaccines, Ramaphosa said the task team has arranged with Afreximbank to support member states.

“Should countries submit firm offers, Afreximbank has committed to provide advance procurement commitment guarantees of up to $2bn to the manufacturers on behalf of member states,” noted Ramaphosa.

READ MORE Covid vaccines: Russia, China, India…Who is supplying Africa?

In addition, the AU and the World Bank are collaborating to ensure that African countries can have access to further funding.

“It is vital to the global containment of Covid-19 that vaccination takes place in all countries and among all populations. No part of the world will be safe from Covid-19 until all parts of the world are safe,” Ramaphosa pointed out.

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