Covid vaccine patent waiver at WTO hailed in South Africa

South Africa has hailed the agreement at the WTO that developing countries can start producing their own Covid vaccines. The measure was first proposed by India and South Africa and a number of developing countries have supported it.

The South African government, local vaccine manufacturers and the organised labour sector have welcomed the agreement at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that developing countries can start producing their own vaccines without permission from the patent holders.

South Africa and India first proposed the measures at the WTO, with support from a number of other developing countries.

The discussions at the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference in Geneva were triggered by a joint proposal by South Africa and India in October 2020 for a time-bound and specific waiver of certain provisions of the Trade-related Intellectual Property Rights agreement (TRIPS) administered by the WTO, to allow manufacturers in developing countries to produce vaccines without the patent holder’s consent.

The agreement came after a week of concerted efforts by the movers of the motion, with some developed countries and pharmaceutical companies initially opposing the wording of the waiver agreement.

Talks were extended by a day to finalise the agreement, which was concluded on Friday.

“The waiver is one element of a wider set of actions to build both innovation and production capability in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent,” said Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition Ebrahim Patel.

“South Africa has four vaccine initiatives underway. Our focus now is to ensure that we address the demand by persuading global procurers for vaccines to source from African producers.

“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 future and indeed, to prepare for future pandemics,” Patel added.

South African vaccine manufacturers unanimously welcomed the terms and supported the approach to reaching an agreement at the WTO.

“This will be an enabler to all institutions involved in Covid vaccine development and manufacture in developing countries to focus on the task at hand unhindered,” said Morena Makhoana, CEO of South African vaccine producer Biovac.

Professor Petro Terblanche, Managing Director of Afrigen, said the agreement will unlock manufacturing capacity on the African continent.

Afrigen is a South African company which has designed and developed the first South African mRNA vaccine, which is currently being tested.

Stavros Nicolaou, group senior executive for strategic trade at Africa’s largest pharmaceutical manufacturer, Aspen Pharmacare, described the agreement as 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. That this has come through an agreement between multilateral parties augurs well for partnership in the pharmaceutical value chain,” Nicolau said.

South Africa’s largest trade union federation, the Congress of SA Trade Unions (COSATU) also welcomed the agreement.

“Significant advances have been made in areas that are crucial for public policy in South Africa, including in the overall architecture of the WTO and its ability to respond to development issues,” COSATU said.

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