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South Africa pushes on vaccine patents and donates shots to the region

WTO chief complains of 'sabotage' in talks on technology transfer by pharma companies to developing countries

A pledge by South Africa to give away two million doses of Johnson & Johnson's Covid-19 vaccine to low-income countries in the region adds to the substance of President Cyril Ramaphosa's complaints about rich countries hoarding vaccines and imposing African travel bans (AC Dispatches, 14/12/21, Continent ramps up vaccine production as G20 countries fail to join international distribution plan). 

Lobbying by Nigeria and South Africa on the travel bans may have paid off. Britain, the first country to impose restrictions on nationals from Southern Africa, dropped them on 15 December.

With its distribution plan coordinated with the African Union (AU), South Africa has joined the crowded field of vaccine diplomacy, where the United States, the European Union, China and Russia have been competing for influence. The contest is wide open in Africa, where the average national vaccination rate is around 8% compared to 67% in Europe and the US.

'This donation embodies South Africa's solidarity,' announced the government in Pretoria, 'with our brothers and sisters on the continent in fighting an unprecedented threat to public threat and prosperity.' Strive Masiyiwa, the AU's vaccine envoy, said South Africa's consignment would be shipped out as fast as possible.

So far, South Africa has vaccinated about 38% of adults, only just over half its target for this year. Ghana, to which Britain has just shipped 2m doses, aims to vaccinate all its adults by the end of the year. All passengers flying into the country are required to show proof of vaccination or will have to get a shot at the airport.

South Africa and Ghana, along with Senegal, Morocco and Kenya, are pushing ahead with plans for local vaccine production next year. But talks at the World Trade Organization on a plan by South Africa and India to take advantage of a patent-waiver on Covid-19 vaccines have hit new snags in recent weeks.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director-general of the WTO, told Reuters that the negotiations were nearing success but there had been an 'orchestrated attempt' to sabotage them. One of the sticking points is whether the patents waiver should go beyond vaccines to include other pharmaceutical products.

With South Africa and India arguing for the interests of developing countries, Britain, the European Union and Switzerland are seen as backing the pharmaceutical companies' position. Okonjo-Iweala, who has been calling for an international vaccine distribution plan, says millions of lives depend on the negotiations succeeding.

Some western countries are beginning to backtrack on the travel bans after coming under pressure. The first to change tack was Britain on15 December when it removed all the 11 African countries from its red list (which enforces a 10-day quarantine in registered accommodation) after acknowledging that the Omicron variant had already spread in Britain. This could point the way to Europe and other western countries scrapping bans on travellers coming from Africa.

Britain imposed restrictions last month to slow the spread of the Omicron variant which have since been matched by the United States and European Union.

Britain's decision to lift the restrictions looked uncoordinated.

Minister for Africa Vicky Ford was taking a verbal shellacking at a meeting of the Chatham House think tank on 15 December as she defended the restrictions against charges that they were racist. But at the same time, Britain's Health Secretary Sajid Javid was telling the House of Commons that he was scrapping the restrictions.

Canada has now said that it is reviewing its travel restrictions.

However, severe economic damage will also be caused if African states impose their own travel restrictions. For the moment, most major African states, including South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, say that they will keep their borders open.

There are some outliers. All passengers arriving in Rwanda must quarantine at designated hotels for three days with a PCR test taken on arrival, with additional tests to be taken on day three and on day seven at the traveller's own cost. Morocco has banned all incoming international flights, while tight travel restrictions have also been imposed by Gabon and Madagascar (AC Dispatches, 27/10/21, New travel bans introduced as disputes break out over vaccine certificates).

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