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Big pharma offers flurry of deals on vaccine plants in Africa ahead of critical talks on patents

Continuing shortages of vaccines and medical equipment undermine the continent's fight against the pandemic

Alongside climate change, uneven economic recovery from the pandemic, the deep inequities in vaccine distribution will be on the agenda again at the G20 talks in Rome on 29-30 October. No one disputes there's a crisis, with under 5% of people in Africa vaccinated compared to 60-70% in many G20 countries.

Over 160 former political leaders have called in an open letter for the world's richest countries, in the G7 and the G20, to use their militaries to airlift surplus vaccines to those countries most in need. Gordon Brown, Britain's former prime minister and now vaccine envoy for the World Health Organization, is leading the campaign.

This stockpile of unused vaccines, that is the surplus even after booster shots to the most vulnerable, is monumental: 212 million in November; 150mn in December; 280mn in January; and 245mn in February, says Brown.

That would total 1.1 bn in vaccines and delivery contracts which could transform public health in many developing economies struggling with new waves of Covid-19.

So far leaders at successive G7 and G20 summits have declined to commit to an international plan on vaccine distribution, preferring to make unilateral and difficult to monitor pledges to help supplies. 

G7 and G20 countries are also divided on longer-term plans to boost vaccine production in developing countries by allowing a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights.

Early next month, members of the World Trade Organization's TRIPS (Trade-related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) council are to meet in Geneva in a last bid to unblock the logjam over plans for a patents' waiver on Covid vaccines before this year's key global ministerial trade summit (AC Dispatches 7/09/21, Rich countries offer funds for future vaccine production but do little this year to get the serum to developing economies).

The novel plan launched by South Africa and India a year ago proposes a temporary waiver on intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines and therapies.

Over 100 countries back the plan. And when the United States joined their ranks in May, some expected a breakthrough. 

Other waiver sceptics, such as Australia and Canada, as well as ministers from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation area, then joined Washington's call for text-based negotiations on the proposal. 

Foreign ministers from the BRICS grouping – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – also backed the plan.

Yet a solid opposition block persists. Hostility from vaccine producing countries in the European Union, Britain, Switzerland and South Korea was enough to deadlock another round of negotiations at the TRIPS Council on 4 October.

It followed months of intense preparation by technical experts working with WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. The TRIPS Council has one more meeting before the WTO opens its annual ministerial conference on 30 November-3 December. 

Okonjo-Iweala, who supports the waiver plan, wants the issue resolved at the ministerial conference. That is a big ask. All WTO decisions require broad consensus. 

The European Commission in Brussels insists the patent waiver is unnecessary. Instead, it calls for an international accord to end export restrictions and increase vaccine production via deals with manufacturers in low-income countries.

With convenient timing for these sensitive talks, that is exactly what is happening. Sceptics suggest vaccine manufacturers may have been prodded by western governments.

On 25 October Moderna said it would sell up to 110million doses of vaccine to the African Union in a deal brokered by US President Joe Biden's office. Weeks earlier, it announced it was fast-tracking its search for a manufacturing site in Africa.

Then in mid-October, Germany's BioNTech said that it would start building its first African factory producing Covid vaccines early next year.

The facility, initially producing 50 million vaccine doses a year, will be in Rwanda. BioNTech has also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Institut Pasteur de Dakar for a factory in Senegal. 

The two factories will produce the vaccine doses, then take on all the final production steps and bottling, known as 'fill and finish'. Their output would meet about 2% of Africa's needs.

The timing of the announcement, on the margins of the meeting of European Union and African Union foreign ministers in Kigali on 25-26 October, points to the EU's unease about accusations of vaccine nationalism from African leaders (AC Dispatches, 24/08/21, Health activists lambast plan to export South African-bottled vaccines to Europe). The EU has promised to provide €27 million in loans and grants to develop the BioNTech facility.

The EU's High Representative for foreign policy Josep Borrell described Covid vaccine production 'for Africa in Africa' as the 'only viable long-term solution to any pandemic.'

The BioNTech announcement, along with the coup d'état in Sudan, overshadowed the agenda of the EU/AU meeting, which had been earmarked as the time to reset talks on a 'strategic partnership' between the two blocs. Instead, the question of whether the EU will recognise vaccine certificates from African states, and the BioNTech plan, took centre stage.

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