In statements at an informal World Trade Organization meeting on Thursday, South Africa took rich countries to task for publicly stressing the need for international cooperation in the fight against Covid-19 while simultaneously blocking a patent waiver that would help manufacturers ramp up vaccine production across the globe.
"One year on, three million deaths later, there is still huge disparity in access to vaccines, while the technology and knowledge for the development and production of vaccine is monopolized through the intellectual property system, with only select manufacturers allowed to manufacture by way of a license, and even then on terms that restrict production and supply," a South African representative said during the WTO gathering.
"One year on, three million deaths later, there is still huge disparity in access to vaccines, while the technology and knowledge for the development and production of vaccine is monopolized."
"There are a handful of developed countries blocking progress on the discussion of our proposal that has received massive global support," the representative continued. "These same countries call for international solidarity and yet at the same time have purchased most of the vaccine supply sufficient to vaccinate their population several times over with the result of denying developing countries access to vaccines."
Along with India and more than 100 other nations, South Africa is pushing for a temporary waiver of WTO intellectual property protections that, according to critics, are artificially limiting vaccine supply by keeping manufacturing under the control of profit-driven pharmaceutical corporations.
The waiver—which is being blocked by the U.S., the United Kingdom, and other wealthy nations—would enable generic manufacturers around the world to replicate vaccine formulas, a step advocates say is necessary to meet global needs as coronavirus infections surge.
Pointing to a recent Guardian report detailing the massive profits Pfizer, Moderna, and other drug companies are raking in from sales of their vaccines, South Africa's spokesperson at the WTO meeting asked, "Is the concern of [waiver] opponents really that Pfizer and BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, etc. have not made sufficient billions, while in the current Covid situation... specific industries and economies are collapsing and millions of lives and livelihoods around the world are at stake?"
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"Of the more than 890 million vaccine doses that have been administered globally, more than 81% have been given in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Low-income countries have received just 0.3 percent."
—Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organization"While we have circular discussions in this forum, the virus is running rampant, evading vaccines, with a strong likelihood that the lack of vaccines in many parts of the world will come back to bite hard, with many more lockdowns and illnesses," the official continued. "If the opposition is just to protect the few more billions these companies will make, then the opposition is self-defeating and short-sighted."
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, echoed that warning in a Friday op-ed for the New York Times, writing that the "longer this coronavirus circulates anywhere, the longer global trade and travel will be disrupted, and the higher the chances that a variant could emerge that renders vaccines less effective."
"Of the more than 890 million vaccine doses that have been administered globally, more than 81% have been given in high- and upper-middle-income countries," Tedros noted. "Low-income countries have received just 0.3 percent."
In addition to offering financial resources and excess doses to developing countries in need, Tedros argued that rich countries should back South Africa and India's proposal to temporarily waive certain coronavirus-related intellectual property rights, a move that he said "would level the playing field and give countries more leverage" in vaccine discussions with pharmaceutical companies.
"If this is not a time to take those actions," wrote Tedros, "it's hard to fathom when that would be."