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France to invest in South African production of vaccines to bridge shortfall

By Romain Chanson
Posted on Tuesday, 1 June 2021 18:32

French President Emmanuel Macron congratulates South African President Cyril Ramaphosa after giving a speech at the University of Pretoria Future Africa in Pretoria, South Africa, Friday May 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Concerns over vaccine inequality in Africa were the focus of the French President Emmanuel Macron's brief meeting with his South African counterpart Cyril Ramaphosa in Pretoria.

When Emmanuel Macron’s plane landed in South Africa, 2,200 vaccine doses from the US firm Johnson & Johnson were tucked away in the hold of the presidential aircraft. The idea was to deliver vaccines directly to French nationals aged 55 and over, owing to concerns that they may not be able to get immunised in the coming months.

The shipment intended for French expatriates serves as a reminder that South Africa’s vaccination drive is lagging dangerously behind that of the West, with only 900,000 vaccines administered thus far in a country of 58 million people.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, one of the continent’s most virulent critics of how “rich countries” are handling the pandemic, has repeatedly warned of “vaccine apartheid”. In a public meeting held at the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa campus, Macron and Ramaphosa shared their views on how the ongoing crisis should be addressed. Prominent members of South Africa’s scientific and industrial communities involved in fighting Covid-19 attended the hours-long high-level dialogue.

Investing in manufacturing capacity

Unperturbed by Macron’s presence, Ramaphosa did not mince words about vaccine hoarding in the West: “Vaccines are flooding into upper-income countries but trickling into Africa,” he said, a statement that his French counterpart agreed with. To address vaccine hoarding by wealthy nations, Macron stressed the need to prioritise the donation of pre-paid vaccine doses and pledged to donate more than 30 million vaccine doses to Africa by the end of the year.

Together with the EU’s existing commitment, the continent can expect to receive 100 million doses later this year. Macron also highlighted a second pressing issue: strengthening Africa’s vaccine manufacturing capacity. “Africa makes up 20% of global vaccine demand but only 1% of vaccine production,” he said.

To help bridge the vaccine shortfall, France announced, albeit unofficially, that it would make a huge investment in the South African multinational drugmaker Aspen Pharmacare. The company, headquartered in Port Elizabeth, produces vaccines for Johnson & Johnson: a technology transfer has enabled manufacturing, packaging and distribution of the single-dose shot for local and international markets. However, Aspen is yet to be given the green light to produce raw materials needed for the vaccine.

Both leaders back Covid-19 vaccine patent waiver

Ramaphosa welcomed efforts to invest in local manufacturing capacity but noted that such investments will have limited impact if countries are unable to secure every step of the vaccine production process. fIn October 2020, South Africa and India submitted a request to that effect, to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). According to Ramaphosa, more than 100 nations backed the initiative.

But the latest, albeit half-hearted, support has come from Macron himself. Long thought to be against waiving patents for Covid-19 vaccines due to his concerns about hampering innovation, the French president has since shifted his position, as he announced in Pretoria after one-on-one talks with Ramaphosa: “I want to make it very clear that we are in favour of trying to lift [intellectual property] hurdles in order to allow vaccine production in South Africa and all of Africa.”

Though Macron agreed to consider a temporary patent waiver, he sees it as a less suitable solution, one that is ill-suited to meet the pandemic’s urgency since waiving intellectual property rights does not immediately resolve the issue of manufacturing capacity.

Despite Macron’s reservations, he plans to work with Ramaphosa towards finding a solution. The pair will present a joint initiative to their counterparts at the upcoming G7 Summit scheduled to be held in the UK on 11 to 13 June. “We are saying we are at war; we are waging a global war and there’s only one enemy,” Ramaphosa said during the public event.

Fighting the jihadist insurgency in Mozambique

Before Macron and Ramaphosa could discuss the Covid-19 response, they addressed strategies needed to fight the jihadist insurgency ravaging northern Mozambique. “France stands ready to offer naval assistance,” Macron said.

A day earlier, the South African president had visited Maputo for the Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit, which ultimately did not yield any concrete proposals. “We are available to help but within the context of a political solution which should firstly be requested by Mozambique, but secondly be structured by the SADC,” Macron said.

In his view, combating terrorism and the pandemic will require a greater show of solidarity and a deeper acknowledgement of interdependence. “I think that now more than ever we understand just how much our fates are intertwined. The Covid-19 crisis has made that apparent to our fellow citizens,” he said before leaving Pretoria at noon on Saturday.

Achille Mbembé, a Cameroonian historian who teaches at a university in Johannesburg, spoke with Macron for a couple of hours during his whirlwind visit. “The president conveyed a message of proactive resolve and solidarity,” he told The Africa Report. “His remarks are not at all reminiscent of Françafrique; they’re something new, something that perhaps doesn’t yet have a name. A door has been opened and there’s an opportunity to be had.”

Macron has tasked Mbembé with organising a massive Africa-France summit in Montpellier, France in October. The conference is set to attract 1,000 attendees from 12 countries and feature over 60 sessions. He sees it as the perfect occasion to “rebuild African-French relations” while taking stock of Macron’s Africa policy as his first term draws to a close.

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