Features, Health & Society Editor
Southern African Development Community (Sadc) chairman and Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi last Friday recommended the pooling of resources in the region for the collective procurement and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines for member states.
In a statement on the Covid-19 pandemic, President Nyusi said the initiative will be led by Sadc’s Committee of Health Ministers.
“In this regard, we recommend the Sadc Committee of Ministers of Health to establish a strong regional collaborative strategy which pools resources together to urgently acquire the vaccine for distribution to our citizens setting priorities in accordance with the level of risk and enhance vaccine research capabilities and develop regional manufacturing capacity for vaccines in the future,” President Nyusi said.
He said the region must intensify cooperation and collaboration between member states, through increased data sharing, policy harmonisation and standardisation, pooled procurement of essential medical and non-medical equipment to address the pandemic in a more effective way.
Given the increasing Covid-19 cases and deaths on the continent and the SADC region in particular, President Nyusi’s call for pooled procurement is most welcome and the best way forward.
As at February 1 the SADC region had 1 708 718 cases, 49 224 deaths and 1 497 951 recoveries according to Africa Centres for Diseases Control and Prevention (Africa CDC). South Africa had 1 456 309 cumulative cases with 44 399 deaths and 1 306 022 recoveries.
Zambia had a cumulative 55 042 cases, while deaths stood at 780 with 43 394 recoveries recorded.
Zimbabwe had 33 548 confirmed cases, 26 583 recoveries and 1 234 deaths as at February 1. Regional integration is needed to contain the Covid-19 pandemic and it will not help if only a few of the 16 SADC member states ring fence themselves.
Before we even start talking about donors and development partners helping individual countries, it is important for the regional block to take the first step as already done and ensure its people are vaccinated.
This can only be done through full implementation of the SADC Pooled Procurement Services for pharmaceuticals and medical supplies to provide sustainable availability and access to affordable and effective essential medicine and health commodities which was recommended at the start of the pandemic last year.
While the SADC secretariat cannot push member states to implement the SADC Pooled Procurement Services for pharmaceuticals and medical supplies, but can only advise and provide information, it is time member states become each brother’s keeper.
If anything, SADC’s borders are open for essential services like haulage trucks, which pass through using the road networks everyday as they move from one country to the other.
Ring fencing is likely to result in reinfections and another wave of infection at a time new variants are emerging.
The advantage of buying in bulk as a region means negotiating for economic prices, and there are opportunities to go and bid as a block and buy bulk commodities and negotiate for a good price.
While recognising the need for countries to secure vaccines for their populations, there is equally a need for regional dialogue and measures to ensure cooperation on regional needs, and between relevant national authorities, appreciating that the region is not collectively secure until all its countries and communities are vaccinated.
While SADC is pushing hard for pooled procurement of vaccines, COVAX, the global initiative to ensure rapid and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines for all countries, regardless of income level has also been pushing.
The African Union (AU) has also come out with strong statements that they want to see 60 percent of all African countries’ populations protected with vaccination.
AU is pushing very hard with vaccine developers to try to get access to the vaccines through COVAX and their own negotiations.
As every country and continent grapples with the pandemic, it is no secret that developed countries have a bigger financial muscle to purchase Covid-19 vaccines in plenty, putting less income countries under intense pressure to access them.
The chorus on the need to avoid ring fencing globally, especially by developed countries is getting louder with global experts speaking.
Speaking to journalists during a media round table at the International Aids Society (IAS) Covid-19 Conference: Prevention on Monday, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases of the United States (NIAID), who is also one of the main researchers in Covid-19, Dr Anthony Fauci, said to stop the pandemic, every country in the world should be protected.
According to Dr Fauci, the impact of a vaccine is not only due to its efficacy, but also “to the coverage that we give to vaccination.”
He said if there is a reduction in efficacy it can be attacked if more people are vaccinated.
“But, we will only have light at the end of the tunnel if we implement a global programme to protect the whole world, not just the rich countries, the whole planet. If you only protect your country without protecting the world, the pandemic will go on and on,” he said.
“When you’re in a public health crisis, you’ve got to pull together, everybody rowing in the same direction. Otherwise, you’re not going to stop what is now as we all know, this historically destructive pandemic that we’re dealing with.”
Dr Fauci, who is also US President Joe Biden’s top coronavirus advisor called for greater investments in vaccine production, saying it is in everyone’s interest for the world to be immunised as soon as possible.
IAS past president Dr Linda-Gail Bekker, who is also an infectious disease specialist from the University of Cape Town, South Africa said: “If we know that the efficiency has gone down we must make sure that we reach more people, and thus the transmission will go down. That is why it is important to make sure that production increases and can reach all corners of the world”.
In an interview with The Herald, Community Working Group on Health (CWGH) Executive Director, Itai Rusike, said many developing countries are facing the prospect of delays and significant cost barriers in accessing vaccines, medicines and diagnostics to control the Covid-19 pandemic.
He said in the face of the prospect of delays and cost barriers, the rapid scaling up of local production where feasible could make a big difference to pandemic control in developing countries.
“Scaling up of local production would be greatly facilitated by waiving compliance with the Section 1,4,5, and 7 of Part ll of the TRIPS Agreement (dealing with copyright, industrial designs, patents, and the protection of undisclosed information) in relation to Covid-19 and for the duration of the pandemic,” suggested Mr Rusike.
“Three main arguments were brought forward by countries opposing the waiver when it first considered by the TRIPS Council: (i) that Intellectual property protection is not a barrier to wider access to Covid-19 health products (ii) that the flexibilities already provided for in the TRIPS Agreement are not well suited to the task of scaling up across a range of health products and involving collaborating groups of countries.”
In fact, Mr Rusike further suggested, the proposed waiver would only apply to Covid-19 products; would only apply for the duration of the pandemic; and would only apply to those countries who chose to make use of it.
“It is most unlikely that allowing limited waiver proposed would materially affect commercial incentives to invest in innovation for Covid-19 products during the pandemic,” he said. “The proposed waiver would only apply to countries who chose to make use of it. Intellectual property rights would remain untouched in countries who chose not to make use of the waiver.”
Mr Rusike said countries whose access to Covid-19 products is secure should not stand in the way of those countries who need the policy space to scale up local production in the face of the very real threat of delays and cost barriers and the consequential morbidity and mortality.