The African Union is backing calls for drugmakers to waive some intellectual property rights on COVID-19 medicines and vaccines to speed up their rollout to poor countries, the head of its disease control body said on Thursday.
South Africa and India, which both manufacture drugs and vaccines, made the proposal at the World Trade Organization last year, saying intellectual property (IP) rules were hindering the urgent scale-up of vaccine production and provision of medical products to some patients.
They have faced opposition from some developed nations, but the backing of the African Union may give renewed impetus for the push to relax IP rules.
John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a news conference IP transfers were a “win-win for everybody” that would address huge inequalities in global public health.
He gave two examples where the developing world had suffered from restricted access to medicines: the swine flu pandemic in the late 2000s and HIV/AIDS in the 1990s.
“In 1996, HIV drugs were available, and we saw how mortality in the developed world decreased drastically. But it would take 10 years before those drugs were accessible in Africa in any meaningful way,” he said.
“In between, 12 million Africans died, so I just use those numbers to say: any IP transfer will be beneficial to everybody, because nobody wants to sit back and be proud of that sad event. … We want to be on the right side of history.”
Separately, the WHO’s Africa director Matshidiso Moeti urged pharmaceutical companies to be flexible with their IP to facilitate access to medicines.
She expressed hope that discussions over waiving IP rights would “turn into action at some point in the future”.
Nkengasong added the Africa CDC’s regulatory taskforce had approved AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use, a day after Ghana received its first AstraZeneca doses from global vaccine distribution facility COVAX.
He said the developers of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine had submitted data dossiers to the Africa CDC and an expert panel would review it.
“We have not received dossiers yet from China colleagues, but we remain optimistic,” he added.
Egypt, Zimbabwe and Senegal have already started rolling out Chinese COVID-19 shots.
(Reporting by Alexander Winning in Johannesburg and Omar Mohammed and Ayenat Mersie in Nairobi; Editing by Joe Bavier, Mark Potter and Hugh Lawson)