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Health chiefs salute progress in lifting patents on Covid-19 vaccines but say India's crisis shows risks to Africa

US backing for intellectual property waivers on vaccines triggers spat with European Union over distribution and equity

The United States support for a lifting of patents on Covid-19 vaccines in coming negotiations at the World Trade Organization is a big win for African campaigners and could offer new opportunities for local medical supply companies (AC Vol 62 No 2, A scramble for vaccines).

It coincides with concerns that the disastrous upturn in Covid-19 infections and deaths in India could be replayed across Africa, raising public demands for more vaccine equity. In response to the upsurge in cases, India has banned all vaccine exports.

The change in the US position on vaccines comes six months after calls by South Africa and India for waivers on patents on Covid-19 vaccines were rejected by industrialised member states at the WTO and the World Health Organization in Geneva. Big pharma has long rejected any loosening of IP protections on vaccines.

Now, the lobbying by campaigners for vaccine equity, together with Ethiopia's Tedros Adhanom, director general of the WHO, and Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director general of the WTO, has scored an initial victory. But it is conditional on overcoming political and production barriers.

Africa Centres for Disease Control director John Nkengasong and WHO Africa Director Matshidiso Moeti called for early negotiations to build on the US announcement.

Those countries that had not yet backed the US move should get 'on the right side of history', said Nkengasong. 'Remember the disaster in Africa when anti-retrovirals were available in the developing world but took almost 10 years to get to Africa. Millions of Africans died needlessly.'

Winning over the sceptics, such as France and Germany, could prove difficult. At a European Union summit last week, EU President Ursula von der Leyen said the grouping was open to discuss the US-backed waiver but more needed to be done to back exports from rich countries.

France's President Emmanuel Macron said 'Anglo-Saxon' countries, Britain and the US, should be doing more to unblock exports of vaccines and therapeutics ahead of any changes to IP rules.

Covax, the public-private alliance to boost vaccine distribution, has received only 60m doses, out of a target of 250m by the end of this month.

Washington has contributed $4bn to Covax but has exported very few vaccines made in the US. The EU has contributed €2.5bn but says that almost half the vaccines manufactured in Europe have been exported via Covax.

Negotiations at the WTO over the waiver proposal, drafted by South Africa and India, will be complex and risk being stretched unless trade chief Okonjo-Iweala can galvanise the political will of the main producers (AC Dispatches 8/3/2021, From pandemic to infodemic).

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