Ramaphosa warns G7 leaders of new aim for patent waiver on Covid therapeutics and diagnostics
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s warning to the G7 followed what he called the success of South Africa, India and other countries in the campaign they led to secure a World Trade Organization TRIPS waiver of the patent rights of international pharmaceutical companies for their Covid-19 vaccines.
After winning what he called a success on Covid vaccines, President Cyril Ramaphosa has warned the leaders of the G7 rich countries that he will remain on their case to support another “TRIPS waiver” – to suspend the intellectual property rights of international pharmaceutical companies over their Covid therapeutics and diagnostics so that developing countries could manufacture these without the authorisation of the patent holders.
Ramaphosa said South Africa, India and other countries were “celebrating the success of achieving a TRIPS waiver” on 17 June 2022 when the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreed to suspend patent rights of the pharma companies for their Covid vaccines. This waiver has received mixed reviews, with some health rights activists dismissing it as a “very bad deal”, while others in the South African pharma industry welcomed it as “balanced” but also warned that many bridges still had to be crossed before it could be practically implemented in Africa.
Ramaphosa reminded G7 leaders at their just-completed summit in Schloss Elmau, Germany that some of them had at first resisted the waiver of these Covid vaccine patent rights – which are governed by the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).
However, “we finally got them to concede that there should be a waiver”, Ramaphosa told the government information service, GCIS. But he added that he had warned the G7 leaders at the summit that the WTO concession on vaccines should be just the foundation for further concessions on Covid-19 therapeutics and diagnostics, which the WTO will decide on in six months.
Read in Daily Maverick: “World Trade Organisation urged to scrap ‘limiting’ TRIPS waiver”
He had also told the G7 that South Africa and other developing countries wanted the G7 countries and their various associations to buy vaccines that are made in Africa for their own citizens as well as for other African countries to which they may donate. Ramaphosa said the G7 leaders had agreed to do that. He was clearly referring to the South African company Aspen Pharmacare’s failure so far to secure any orders for the J&J Covid vaccine it recently began manufacturing under licence in Gqeberha.
Stavros Nicolaou, Aspen’s group senior executive for strategic trade, told Daily Maverick the WTO decision to waive TRIPS for Covid vaccines was a step in the right direction rather than delivering the final product. Unless an international decision was made to procure vaccines manufactured in Africa, the waiver would be meaningless.
The TRIPS waiver was a step towards the bigger goal of capacitating the continent to industrialise pharmaceuticals to ensure health sovereignty and health security. Vaccines were the most basic necessity for those ambitions. “Nothing saves more lives than vaccines,” said Nicolaou.
He said the TRIPS waiver had also struck a good balance between rewarding innovation and research on the one hand, and giving more access to treatment on the other. But he noted that access to intellectual property was far from being enough. Any manufacturer would also need the innate capabilities, the skills, the competence, the capacity and – most importantly – a willing partner to share the know-how, to be able to really make the vaccines. “That’s really the crux,” he said.
“And the bigger picture is that before you even get to IP [intellectual property] waivers, until and unless there is a reorientation of the international procurement mechanism and there’s a real commitment to buy from Africa, including for African governments themselves to buy from Africa, unless that first step happens, it’s pointless putting up any facilities or doing any tech transfers, because it’s all going to amount to nothing.
“The first step is to avoid any white elephants, to have sustainability. It’s no use saying, ‘we are putting this [facility] up’, and [then never using] it. Everyone will be out of the market in six to 12 months.”
Nicolaou said Aspen would be giving organisations like Covax, which is procuring free or low-cost vaccines for low- and middle-income countries, a few more weeks and if they still put in no vaccine orders, it would switch its production line back to anaesthetics. This would be a major setback for Africa’s ambition to become independent in Covid vaccine production since Aspen is the only Covid vaccine manufacturer on the continent.
However, Fatima Hassan, the director of the Health Justice Initiative (HJI), said Ramaphosa’s characterisation of the WTO agreement on Covid vaccines as a success was “just posturing” when one considered that South Africa had initially called for a full waiver of all Covid medical technologies.
“What they got was a waiver only of IP on vaccines and not all elements even of that, but only just removing some export restrictions” (on the quantities that may be exported under a compulsory licence).
Hassan said that, after all of Ramaphosa’s hard lobbying internationally for many months for this full TRIPS waiver, South Africa was in the end bullied by the US and European Union into a “very bad deal” which had jeopardised timely access to treatment, diagnostics and other technologies.
“If Ramaphosa really wanted to address the issue properly, he could right now issue compulsory licences and take executive action on treatment and diagnostics.
“Ramaphosa doesn’t have to wait for the WTO. He doesn’t have to wait for six months. He can take executive action now.”
Hassan added that it was optimistic of Ramaphosa to expect that the WTO might allow a waiver on Covid therapeutics and diagnostics in six months as the WTO was notoriously slow in reaching such decisions.
New international treaty
Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya, said the President had also raised concerns with the G7 leaders “about the absence of equity and transparency in the availability of vaccines for African countries, which has been sharply exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic”. He urged the international community to work together towards a new international treaty for pandemic preparedness and response.
Ramaphosa said he had asked the G7 leaders to support a South African proposal to make Africa self-reliant in the production of fertilisers. This would help to address food security on the continent, which had been hit by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The war had caused huge shortages and price rises of food, especially grain, and of fertilisers produced by the two countries.
“We are going to work on a proposition because Africa must begin to produce its own fertilisers. We must become economically independent when it comes to food security,” Ramaphosa said, adding that the “silver lining” of the war was “that it could make us wake up to begin to produce our own fertilisers to secure our own food security”. Some of the G7 leaders had expressed support for this proposal.
Ramaphosa said United Nations secretary-general António Guterres had explained to the G7 leaders his efforts to open the channels so that exports of cereals and fertilisers from Russia and Ukraine could resume. “We thought the report was very positive,” he added.
He and the other guests at the summit, including Senegal’s President Macky Sall, who was there as the African Union president, had also discussed climate change with the G7 leaders.
This included the Just Energy Transition Partnership which France, Germany, the UK, the US and the European Union have signed with South Africa. The partner countries have pledged to provide $8.5-billion in financing for this initiative to help South Africa transition from its heavy dependence on coal as an energy source toward renewables, while preserving jobs and livelihoods. Ramaphosa noted that Germany had just pledged a further €300-million for the programme.
He said negotiations were continuing to establish exactly what the programme would mean for South Africa, and it had made it clear to its partners that the energy transition should not adversely affect the jobs of miners or mining communities.
The transition needed to be managed very well within a time frame that would keep South Africa on a renewable energy trajectory, particularly in embracing new technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells, while ensuring that this was done in full consultation with the South African people so that no one was left behind.
The summit had also had a “wonderful discussion on the issue of gender equality, empowerment of women”, focusing on the need to mainstream gender equality “to begin to look at gender budgeting and inculcate it in our budgeting processes. This, for us as South Africa, means a lot because we have been grappling with the issue of how to have gender budgeting within our whole budget architecture”. DM