President Cyril Ramaphosa has said that if the international community is truly committed to human rights and the values of equality and non-discrimination, vaccines should be viewed as a global public good.
Ramaphosa said in his weekly letter to the nation that vaccines should be made available to all, not just to the highest bidders.
South Africa and India have proposed a temporary waiver of certain aspects of Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) to give poorer countries wider access to technologies needed to produce vaccines and medicines.
Ramaphosa highlighted that currently, 55% of the existing vaccine manufacturing capacity is 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.
“As a nation, we must stand united in our effort to manufacture Covid-19 vaccines to save lives and proceed with the national recovery. Our commitment to putting human lives first does not diminish our commitment to honour international trade agreements,” he said.
He reflected on South Africa at the height of the HIV/Aids pandemic and when members of the pharmaceutical industry had sued government for trying to enforce a law that allowed it to import and manufacture affordable generic antiretroviral medication.
The lawsuit, ‘Big Pharma vs Mandela’ was dropped in 2001 following massive opposition.
“Years later, the world is in the grip of another deadly pandemic in the form of Coronavirus. And once again, South Africa is waging a struggle that puts global solidarity to the test,” Ramaphosa said.
He warned that inoculating populations of richer countries while poorer countries waited in line, would be tantamount to vaccine apartheid.
Ramaphosa said this will set a devastating precedent.
However, he said South Africa is preparing to bolster global vaccine manufacturing for Covid-19 and other major diseases, adding that existing facilities need to be repurposed and new capacity built.
Ramaphosa explained that although South Africa had secured enough vaccine doses to reach ‘population immunity’, there will always be a need for vaccines, adding that the country hoped to rapidly scale up local production to ensure wider access to affordable and effective vaccines.
Last week the US gave its support to the waiver proposal and more than 100 other countries have also thrown their weight behind the idea.
“This is an unprecedented situation. It requires that all intellectual property, knowledge, technology and data related to Covid-19 health technologies be put at the disposal of all,” Ramaphosa stated.
Ramaphosa called on all South Africans to support this effort, and in particular civil society organisations that played a leading role during the HIV/Aids pandemic.