The South African government, local vaccine manufacturers and organised labour have welcomed the agreement at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that can support production of Covid-19 vaccines in developing countries.
Member states at the WTO 12th Ministerial Conference in Geneva last week agreed on a deal that temporarily removes intellectual property barriers around patents for Covid-19 vaccines, and postponed the discussions on extending the waiver to treatments and tests by six months.
This comes two years after the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver proposal was raised at the WTO by South Africa and India.
The agreement allows governments to authorise local manufacturers to produce vaccines or their ingredients, substances or elements and use processes which are covered by patents, without the permission of the patent holders during the pandemic.
Director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said in her closing remarks the agreements “demonstrate that the WTO is, in fact, capable of responding to emergencies of our time”.
“On the TRIPS waiver, now we have something in hand,” Okonjo-Iweala said during the closing media briefing.
“It’s really exciting now to go to those factories that are starting to set up all over the developing world, and start to work with them about how this will actually be made real.”
The South African government welcomed the agreement as a solid and helpful basis to strengthen South Africa’s joint efforts to develop a strong African vaccine manufacturing capacity.
Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition Ebrahim Patel said the unanimous support for the waiver agreement by all WTO countries should lay the basis for such partnerships, and give countries greater flexibilities.
Patel said the agreement was a step forward in the government’s efforts to stimulate African industrialisation and it has the potential to unlock production beyond fill and finish.
“South Africa has four vaccine initiatives under way. Our focus now is to ensure we address demand by persuading global procurers for vaccines to source from African producers,” Patel said.
“This waiver and the other commitments secured at the WTO is also about pandemic preparedness to enable developing countries to have the legal tools in place to address variants to Covid-19 in the future, and prepare for future pandemics.”
Local vaccine manufacturers Biovac, Afrigen and Aspen PharmaCare also welcomed the terms and supported the approach to reach agreement at the WTO.
Aspen Pharmacare’s group senior executive for strategic trade Dr Stavros Nicolaou said this was a positive step for the diversification of global pharmaceutical supply chains and for manufacturing on the African continent.
“It achieves a balance between providing access to Covid-19 vaccines in developing countries within a framework that still rewards much-needed innovation by the original patent holders,” he said.
“That this has come through agreement between multilateral parties augurs well for a partnership in the pharmaceutical value chain.”
However, civil society groups around the world are not convinced and said the WTO decidedly rejected the demand by health activists for a full TRIPS waiver.
Dr Lauren Paremoer from the People’s Health Movement in South Africa said the agreement put profits ahead of lives and showed the current intellectual property regime failed in protecting health, and promoting tech transfer.
“This non-waiver sets a bad precedent for future pandemics and will continue to put lives at risk, especially given the TRIPS plus provisions it contains and the refusal to include a waiver for diagnostics and therapeutics,” she said.