Africa: Countries Push for IP Waivers On Covid-19 Vaccine Access

As African states place orders for Covid-19 vaccines, a coalition of countries is proposing for an IP waiver for accessing Covid-19 vaccines at the World Trade Organisation negotiations.

While India and South Africa propose a waiver from some of the WTO's intellectual property rules, a new proposal by a coalition of countries referred to as "Ottawa Group" has called for the launch of a new "Trade and Health Initiative".

The Ottawa Group is a coalition of countries that have met regularly to develop a series of proposed actions and ideas involving WTO reform.

The group has been instrumental in putting forward a series of immediate actions, which, it says, are aimed at protecting supply chains from further instability and making sure that access to essential medical goods is not hampered further.

The co-sponsors of the 'Ottawa Group" proposal are Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, the EU, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, the Republic of Korea, and Switzerland.

In their proposal, the Ottawa Group has set out a series of draft elements for the Trade and Health initiative, including taking stock of unnecessary existing restrictions on exports of essential medical goods for the pandemic response.

The coalition wants the WTO to remove the restrictions that exist on exports of medicine and vaccines, and avoid instating new ones where possible.

In an annex to the document released during the December 2020 WTO negotiations, the group said the new restrictions should be communicated to the global trade club and limited, if possible, to three months.

"Negotiations for the IP waiver are still going on. As you are aware, Kenya has joined South Africa, India and other countries to negotiate for the IP waiver. But we are also looking at more possibilities of ensuring the waiver comes with other benefits," said Johnson Weru, Principal Secretary State Department for Trade and Enterprise, Ministry of Industrialisation, Trade and Enterprise Development.

In the proposal, the Ottawa Group wants the WTO members to slash tariffs on essential medical goods, while "taking into account national circumstances."

The annexed document also features a section on customs, services, and technical regulations, which calls for sharing experiences in the area of customs and best practises involving technical regulations. Their aim is to facilitate trade in essential medical goods.

As the next WTO negotiations take place on January 21, WHO's director of immunisation, vaccines and biologicals, Kate O'Brien, has warned that more funds are required to enable 92 of the world's poorest nations gain access to the vaccine.

"We need about $7 billion in order to deliver enough vaccines to these countries through the end of 2021. And the Covax Facility, a global initiative of 192 countries that is trying to ensure equitable access, has already raised about $6 billion of the $7 billion," said Dr O'Brien.

"For 92 countries that are less able to actually purchase these vaccines on their own from their own domestic funds, there are donor funds that have been provided," she added.

A number of African countries including Kenya, South Africa, and Morocco, have made orders for Covid-19 vaccines. South Africa has ordered 20 million Covid-19 vaccine doses.

Kenya has ordered 24 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, through the Covax facility, while several African countries are opting for vaccines from India, Russia, and China.

Morocco has ordered 65 million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine from China, and AstraZeneca vaccine from Serum Institute India.

Egypt already received 50,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine in December, 2020, and expects another 50,000 in January.

The proposed "Covid-19 waiver" for several aspects of the WTO's Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), continues to receive more support from developing countries.

Over half of the WTO's 164 members are now in support of the initiative.

However, the pharmaceutical companies from the US, UK, including the European Union, have been quick to express their opposition to the proposed waiver of IP rights over the duration of the pandemic.

They have warned that allowing their Covid-19 vaccines to be copied without their permission through recourse to compulsory licensing "would undermine innovation and raise the risk of unsafe viruses."

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