African nations should build capacity to produce vaccines on the continent and work with pharmaceutical companies to ensure that the raw materials needed to produce the inoculations are available, according to World Trade Organisation Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
While a waiver on the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS, is seen as a way to improve the supply of Covid-19 vaccines to the world’s least inoculated continent, Okonjo-Iweala cautioned that only a handful of African countries have the capacity to produce the life-saving drugs.
“There a handful of countries — maybe Tunisia, Morocco to some extent, Senegal, South Africa — where we have some capacity; that’s why we are importing 99% of our vaccines,” Okonjo-Iweala said in a webinar hosted by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. “If we get IP today, we won’t be able to do anything with it because we don’t have investment, we don’t have manufacturing capacity.”
WTO members are divided over the question of whether a waiver to the its intellectual-property rules for vaccines is the best way to expand access to life-saving drugs in the developing world. Negotiations are moving very slowly as parties try to come to a “pragmatic, sensible agreement that allows developing countries access to technology, know-how and find a solution on IP that doesn’t also disincentivise research and negotiations,” she said.
A meeting with heads of vaccine manufacturers including Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer Inc, Moderna Inc, the makers of Russia’s Sputnik shot and Sinopharm Group Co. at the WTO last week showed that companies are interested in boosting investments on the continent, she said.
J&J is having its inoculations produced on a so-called fill-finish basis in South Africa by Aspen Pharmacare Holdings Ltd. where Aspen packages the doses using ingredients supplied by J&J. Pfizer last week signed a similar agreement with the Biovac Institute in Cape Town and Sinopharm’s doses are made in Egypt.
So far just 1.4% of Africa’s 1.2 billion people have been fully vaccinated against the disease.