OPEN LETTER

Not sharing knowledge in a pandemic is immoral and a stain on humanity — and Africa will not forget

By Archbishop Thabo Makgoba 9 June 2021

Elderly people wait for their Covid-19 vaccinations in Munsieville, Krugersdorp on 17 May 2021. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla / Daily Maverick)

An appeal to the leaders of the G7 nations meeting in Britain from Friday — it is time to use your power to lift monopolies over technology and know-how to produce Covid-19 vaccines and other medical products.

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba

Thabo Makgoba is the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town.

As someone who received the first dose of my two-dose vaccine in South Africa recently on account of my age, I am one of a fortunate few in the developing world. South Africa, one of the largest economies on the continent, is relying on supplies from only two companies. No supplies have arrived yet from COVAX, the initiative upon which rich governments and billionaire philanthropists ask developing countries such as ours to rely. 

This week, the People’s Vaccine Alliance released data indicating that if vaccinations continue at the current rate in low-income countries, it will take 57 years for everyone to get vaccinated. At the same time, the alliance said, “G7 nations were vaccinating at a rate of 4.6 million people a day in May”, showing that their countries will be widely vaccinated shortly because the current approach to vaccine production is artificially limiting global supply.

It is a cause for joy that people in wealthy nations are receiving vaccines. But this should not mean that people in developing countries like ours have to go without the same lifesaving vaccines.

It is urgent to redress this genuine inequity. It is fundamentally a question not of science — science and global cooperation developed the safe and effective vaccines we need — but of politics. Just as South Africa asked of the world during the dark days of apartheid, we ask again now if the international community can muster the courage to stand up to a system of profound injustice in service to our shared humanity.

G7 leaders have a vital role to play. As they prepare to meet for their summit in the coming days, the issue of lifting monopolies over technology and know-how for the production of Covid-19 vaccines and other medical products must occupy their minds. They can no longer ignore the calls from across the developing world urging them to join us in solidarity and to make enough vaccines for the world right now.

It cannot be right that our global approach relies on giant pharmaceutical corporations and monopolies to decide how many vaccines get made, what price to charge and who gets them — literally deciding who lives and who dies, based on an incentive of profit. It cannot be right — ever — for developing countries to rely on charity.

And it cannot be right that qualified vaccine manufacturers across the developing world are not making vaccines — and that CEOs are refusing the World Health Organization’s efforts to transfer technology to them. Such a greed-first approach failed when millions died of HIV/AIDS; today, that same approach is artificially restricting the supply of vaccines.

It is time for the G7 to use its power to lift monopolies over technology and know-how to produce Covid-19 vaccines and other medical products. Until now, the rich world has sided with industry, blocking proposals to waive intellectual property monopolies over Covid-19 vaccines, treatments and technologies — a proposal led by South Africa and India, supported by 100 countries, at the World Trade Organization.

US President Joe Biden recently indicated support for the waiver but sadly limited it to vaccines. Nevertheless, that is a small step towards standing up to monopoly interests. We will not forget that act of solidarity. But countries such as Germany and Norway continue to block efforts, even now, that could help to increase the supply of safe vaccines to the world. Why? How many more people must die across India, Latin America and Africa before Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Erna Solberg end their resistance to the developing world’s efforts to make more vaccines?

There is no reason whatsoever not to share knowledge in a pandemic. It is immoral and a stain on humanity. Africa will not forget those who stood against us in our hour of need. Let us now come together for a common cause. A people’s vaccine is about equity, justice and public health effectiveness: the entire world will be safe from this pandemic only once every village, city and country is safe. The G7 must do the right thing, support a waiver, share the knowledge and help bring this pandemic to an end. DM

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  • It appears that SA’s main problem is vaccine distribution, not vaccine supply As for the IP waiver, the use of the term ‘knowledge’ is disingenuous: the vaccines were not out there in nature, waiting to be discovered; they were conceived and developed through human ingenuity. Of course it would be an act of great virtue if corporate entities like Pfizer were to waive their patents. But they cannot be compelled to do this: what possible incentive would they then have to sink millions of dollars and millions of person hours into developing a vaccine the next time the world needs one? It’s also important to note that AZ in particular is being sold at cost (that’s the one we gave away 1000000 doses of). Jeremiads like this heap the blame for SA’s plight on the developed world, when really, we have no-one to blame but ourselves. The fact that both Zimbabwe and eSwatini are far out-performing us in vaccine distribution says it all.

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