Behind the great and calming news of Covid-19 vaccine, there is a raging battle between the rich and poor countries over the intellectual property (IP) which is being seen as a barrier to development or distribution of Covid vaccines and treatments.
Already, India and South Africa have petitioned the World Trade Organisation, (WTO) for a temporary suspension of intellectual property protection for all Covid-19 vaccines and related technologies.
Several other countries including Kenya and Eswatini are also supporting the petition with the hope of lowering the cost of the vaccine for their citizens. And some researchers from the advanced countries are also supporting this initiative saying that it would be immoral to unnecessarily force the poor countries to buy the vaccines at an exorbitant price.
But on the contrary, the rich countries seem to favour voluntary methods of transferring technology to poor countries over the waiver approach as noted by one of the World Health Organisation (WHO) negotiators. And considering that Covid-19 prevention treatment discoveries are complicated biological products in which the main barriers are production facilities, infrastructure, and know-how, IP is the least of the barriers.
Further, they argue that even if the waiver is given, poor countries may not have the “expertise, processes, and biological samples, cell lines, or bacteria” to be able to document to regulatory agencies that they have an identical product. They therefore recommend that companies from poor countries should seek for a non-exclusive license and technology transfer from manufacturers in developed countries.
However, India already has a law (Patent Act, 1970m which is recognised by WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement). This law compels big pharmaceutical companies in the country to allow local companies to “make, use or sell a particular product or use a particular process which has been patented, without the need of the permission of the patent owner.”
But those advocating for voluntary licensing agreements do not acknowledge the fact that India is already one of the leading manufacturers of vaccines in the world. It has the capacity and knowhow to set up a biological plant and manufacture affordable vaccines. In the meantime, India has acquired a non-exclusive from AstraZeneca and Novavax through the Serum Institute of India to start production of vaccines and plans to start manufacturing.
This is a clear indication that the type of partnership model that rich countries want may not bring down the cost to the level where the poorest countries can afford. And that voluntary transfer of technology has never worked before.
Learn from the past
The world can learn from a similar debate that took place on HIV/Aids therapies. It went on for decades with more deaths until India through the Gates Foundation came to the aid of poor countries. It is possible that if we do not learn from the past, Covid-19 may linger on with more people dying before everybody across the world is vaccinated.
Private agreements between companies such as the Novavax and AstraZeneca’s with Indian and Brazilian companies have been seen to lack transparency. It is on this basis that South Africa and India started to push for a waiver and to allow more companies to manufacture volumes of these vaccines for the entire world.
Currently, many other countries have their hopes on Covid-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through its initiatives in Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (Gavi) simply known as the Gavi Alliance. So far 172 countries (including 64 rich countries) are in discussion to potentially be part of COVAX, a global initiative working with vaccine manufacturers to provide countries worldwide equitable access to safe and effective vaccines, as soon as they are approved.
Other organisations behind COVAX which include the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the WHO are already working closely with manufacturers and governments from both the rich and poor countries to ensure that Covid-19 vaccines are available throughout the world. But the availability does not imply affordability. This is why some countries are agitating for a patent waiver.
Take research seriously
There are lessons Africa must learn from all these initiatives. First, the continent must seek a sustainable strategy to delink itself from dependence on philanthropic initiatives. The continent’s failure to leverage its large population and resources to negotiate from a position of strength always undermines its independence. Second, the continent must begin to take research and development seriously in order to deal with context specific disease outbreaks such as Ebola that will never be addressed by big pharma.
Thirdly, since Covid-19 is not the last viral disease outbreak, the continent must develop its pharmaceutical industry as a first step to developing capacity for future outbreak.
We can also learn from a small country such as Bangladesh which manufactures 97 per cent of its drug requirements and imports only three per cent. In contrast, Africa imports more than 90 per cent if its medicine requirements. Yet, Africa’s forests have the richest potential source of new medical agents. Indeed, over half of all plant species are to be found in the tropics but they remain marginally explored.
And it is interesting to note that scientists in recent past have developed great interest in plant resources as a potential source of medical drugs. Instead of becoming curious about this renewed interest in plant material, Africa is exporting raw material and demonising herbalists as practicing witchcraft.
We also saw that many of those who survived Covid-19 in some African countries, Kenya included, used a local anti-viral plant as governments went for expensive Remdesivir, a fake anti-viral concoction.
Increasing research spend especially on the naturally available resources can be fast-tracked by the adoption of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) that has created a single market in Africa. Therefore, the confidence to support local research findings could propel the African continent into a strong negotiating position in future pandemics that we stand today.
The writer is professor of entrepreneurship at University of Nairobi’s School of Business