President Cyril Ramaphosa says that South Africa plans to rapidly scale local production of its Covid-19 vaccines if intellectual property rights are relaxed by international trade authorities.
Writing in his weekly open letter to the public, Ramaphosa said that his government is pushing for a temporary Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver for Covid-19 vaccines at the World Trade Organisation.
The waiver would suspend intellectual property rights so that Covid-19 vaccines and other new technologies are accessible to poor countries.
“A situation in which the populations of advanced, rich countries are safely inoculated while millions in poorer countries die in the queue would be tantamount to vaccine apartheid,” he said.
“It will set a devastating precedent in our quest to realise a more egalitarian world and our ability to handle future pandemics.”
Ramaphosa said that vaccines should be made available to all, not just to the highest bidders.
He added that 55% of the existing vaccine manufacturing capacity is currently located in East Asia, 40% in Europe and North America, and less than 5% in Africa and South America.
In the case of developing countries, much of this capacity is under-utilised, Ramaphosa said. The president said that South Africa is one of only five countries on the continent with vaccine production capacity. Although the country has secured enough vaccine doses to reach ‘population immunity’, there will continue to be a need for vaccines, he said.
“We are therefore preparing to bolster global vaccine manufacturing for Covid-19 and other major diseases. Existing facilities need to be repurposed and new capacity built.”
However, he said that South Africa’s focus on putting human lives first does not diminish its commitment to honour international trade agreements. “It is about the promotion of health as a public and social good. It is about affirming our commitment to the advancement of equality and human rights, not just in our own country but around the world,” he said.