It took a pandemic for the world to learn that African countries import 99% of their vaccines. Africa has around ten vaccine manufacturers, but most do not make a vaccine’s active ingredients, and instead ‘fill and finish’ imported products. A lack of manufacturing is one reason that only 11% of the continent’s people have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. African leaders, meeting for their annual summit in Addis Ababa last week, reiterated a target of vaccinating 70% of their populations this year. But the World Health Organization (WHO) has said that this would need a sixfold increase in weekly vaccinations — from 6 million people to 36 million. So far, only Mauritius and Seychelles have met the 70% target, and COVAX, an initiative to provide vaccines for low- and middle-income countries, is running out of money.
African countries continually find themselves at the back of the vaccine queue, but two developments could begin to change this narrative. Last week, researchers at a company in South Africa said that they have nearly completed the process of reproducing Moderna’s mRNA vaccine against COVID-19. Working with the WHO’s technology-transfer hub, the researchers at Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines in Cape Town made very small quantities of vaccine, based on Moderna’s data, but without the company’s involvement. The WHO advised them to copy Moderna’s vaccine in part because the company, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has said it will not enforce its COVID-19 patents during the pandemic.
Deciding when the pandemic is over, and whether next-generation mRNA vaccines might infringe particular patents, is fraught with difficulty. But a second development would make life easier for smaller manufacturers that can make mRNA vaccines and scale up production. World Trade Organization (WTO) member states might be edging closer to an agreement to waive intellectual-property rights for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments during the pandemic.
This idea, proposed by India and South Africa, has the backing of more than 100 nations, as well as that of researchers, campaign groups, businesses and media outlets, including Nature. The European Union, Switzerland and the United Kingdom are opposed, but WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is working to resolve the differences. One possible compromise could be for the waiver to apply only in countries that lack vaccine manufacturing and research.
Countries opposing the waiver argue that it is unlikely to change the course of the pandemic, partly because transferring knowledge and ramping up manufacturing capacity would take years. But the achievements of the researchers in South Africa show that this is not the case. Moreover, …….