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21st May 2022

Ramaphosa slams EU for protecting vaccine profits

  • South African president Cyril Ramaphosa: 'We are talking about the lives of millions rather than the profitability of a few companies' (Photo: European Union)
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An African-European summit ended Friday (18 February) on a predictably bitter note, with the European Union continuing to refuse to lift intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines.

African Union leaders, after the two-day summit in Brussels, said an offer by the EU to help Africa build vaccine-manufacturing plants was incomplete without granting Africans the right to duplicate and distribute the vaccines.

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"We are talking about the lives of millions rather than the profitability of a few companies," South African president Cyril Ramaphosa told a news conference.

Ramaphosa called for the European side to waive the intellectual property rights on vaccines, pointing out that the move would consolidate relations between Africa and Europe.

Ramaphosa also said "governments that are really serious about ensuring that the world has access to vaccines" should agree to waive their intellectual property rights.

A patent waiver, he said, would empower African scientists and industry, upgrade existing capabilities on the continent, and facilitate the diversification of manufacturing supply chains.

African leaders had arrived in Brussels on Thursday seeking some measure of European support on a patent waiver ahead of next week's talks at the World Trade Organization, where a proposal for the waiver, first submitted by South Africa and India back in 2020, is expected to be discussed.

Getting European support at the WTO was always going to be hard for the Africans.

EU countries, like Germany and France, have consistently opposed such a patent waiver on vaccines, ostensibly to protect the revenues needed for future innovation and business interests of big European pharmaceutical companies like BioNTech and Sanofi.

And on Friday, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, doubled down on the need for intellectual property right protections as "a very precious good," and as the work of scientists.

French president Emmanuel Macron told the same news conference that Europe was the biggest vaccine-exporter worldwide — a thinly-veiled allusion to the business interests at stake. Overall, the EU has exported over 1.8 billion vaccines doses, including donations.

While EU countries have donated more than 130 million doses to Africa there is a widespread view among experts that vaccine inequality can only be addressed through local production in the long term.

Vaccine manufacturers should be "incentivised to share their expertise, critical technologies and data, as well as their intellectual property through the temporary waiver," Phiona Atuhebwe, a new vaccines introduction medical officer for World the Health Organization, told EUobserver.

Last year, the WHO selected a consortium of South African companies to run an mRNA hub that recently announced that it had reverse-engineered Moderna's vaccines.

But Ramaphosa, speaking to the press in Brussels, said that the hub's work had been hampered by intellectual property barriers.

Senegalese president Macky Sall, who currently chairs the African Union, told journalists on Friday that he hopes to reach "a dynamic compromise agreement" at the WTO on a vaccine patent-waiver in the coming months.

(Photo: EUobserver)
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