US, South Africa coordinate on global vaccination efforts

United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai met virtually on Thursday with Ebrahim Patel, South African Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition, to discuss increasing Covid-19 vaccine production and the waiving of intellectual property for vaccines, as the U.S. looks to coordinate with key partners on global vaccination efforts.

South Africa and India first proposed a waiver of certain provisions of the WTO Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) in October 2020 to boost global supplies of Covid-19 vaccines and other medical equipment; more than 100 countries, “mostly” developing ones, signed on to the proposal. Last week, the United States announced its support.

Minister Patel on Thursday updated Ambassador Tai on the status of efforts to revise the initial proposal, and they agreed to stay in “regular” communication over the coming days, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said in a statement.

Once the proposal is resubmitted, negotiations at the World Trade Organization over the substance of the text can occur – a number of other WTO member-states are in favor of future “text-based” negotiations, which Tai acknowledged at the meeting.

This is important as negotiations at the WTO, especially over contentious issues, can drag on for years. Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, on Monday said she was “hopeful”  member-states would reach an agreement by December.

“We just need the will to sit down,” Okonjo-Iweala said in remarks to the WTO General Council. “We need to treat this whole issue with a sense of urgency,” she said, mainly out of concern for developing country members.  

Although it’s unclear what Tai and Patel discussed specifically in terms of Covid-19 vaccine production, South Africa at the WTO has said it has spare production capacity.

In Africa, increasing access to critical materials to fight the Covid-19 pandemic is urgently needed as just 22 million vaccines have been administered on a continent of over 1 billion people. 0.38 percent of the population has received a second dose, according to the latest Africa CDC data.

A key to addressing this shortage is increasing vaccine and other medical production on the continent.

According the World Health Organization (WHO) in March, there are ten manufacturers “with vaccine production” based in five African countries – Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa, and Tunisia.

However, the WHO notes, “there is very limited upstream production with most local companies only engaging in packaging and labeling, and occasionally fill and finish steps” – that’s where vaccines are produced elsewhere and sent to other manufacturers to finish processing.

“Noteworthy, there are about 80 sterile injectables facilities on the continent,” the WHO said, “which may provide an opportunity for vaccine production given the primary dosage form in Africa is vials.”

Aspen Pharmacare in South Africa is an example of a company that reconfigured its sterile facilities for finish and fill of Covid-19 vaccines. The company says it has the capacity to produce 200 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine annually. When South Africa resumed its administration of the J&J vaccine on April 30, Aspen had a reported 1.1 million doses ready for distribution.

These vaccines will be distributed domestically and sent to the African Union (AU) for distribution to countries across the continent.

“What we signed was a technology transfer and manufacturing deal that will enable us to contract manufacturing for, and on behalf of, Johnson & Johnson,” Stavros Nicolaou, senior executive at Aspen Pharmacare was reported as saying by The World, a public radio program.

Indeed, the expansion of vaccine and other medical production will require technology transfer as well as the transfer of expertise. It will also require countries to take measures to increase the availability of vaccine components.

Okonjo-Iweala, in remarks to the WTO General Council last week, urged member countries to reduce trade barriers that impact the production of “vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics” globally. She noted that export restrictions and “prohibitions” had already fallen from 109 to 51.

“We need to be mindful to the issue of allowing supply chains to work,” She said. “Otherwise, no matter what capacity we have we will still not be able to manufacture what is needed.”

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