SADC countries have accessed a miniscule number of the COVID-19 vaccines allotted to them under the COVAX facility.
Namibian President Hage Geingob has identified this as one of the indicators of “vaccine apartheid”.
Rich countries are hogging vaccines while developing nations twiddle their thumbs and hope that the goodwill of the wealthy will eventually shine through.
It’s a long shot.
At the same time, there is a commendable lobby to waive intellectual property rights as they pertain to the production of COVID-19 vaccines. We are told by the World Trade Organisation that a decision on the matter could be made around December this year.
By any assessment, the developing world is being squeezed by the self-interest of the rich and the profit motives of vaccine manufacturers.
And no Robin Hood is going to come to our rescue anytime soon, if ever.
What is really needed is a proactive, holistic approach to the situation so that Africa and other developing regions can sustainably confront the immediate challenges posed by COVID-19, while also building long-term capacity to deal with our developmental issues.
Right now, there is no reason why we are not engaging in pooled procurement of COVID-19 vaccines and associated necessities.
About a year ago, the Secretariat of the Southern African Development Community touted the pooling of resources by member states as a key aspect of the region’s COVID-19 response.
The exact words used by the Secretariat then were: “The SADC Pooled Procurement Services for pharmaceuticals and medical supplies is being implemented to provide sustainable availability and access to affordable and effective essential medicine and health commodities, and member states have been encouraged to utilise this facility for the procurement of the needed supplies for prevention, treatment and control of COVID-19 and any other epidemics.”
It was a welcome approach. But are we seeing it on the ground? Or are we seeing the SADC region accessing less than five percent of what it was allotted under COVAX?
Our problems largely stem from trying to go it alone.
We all rushed to COVAX as individuals, even as we harped on about how the SADC Pooled Procurement Services for pharmaceuticals and medical supplies was a game changer for the region.
We have all tried to deal individually with vaccine manufacturers, we have all tried to get our own supply deals, and we have all failed to get satisfaction.
What, really, is stopping SADC from implementing pooled procurement of vaccines?
Why do we insist on expensive and ineffective solo routes when we can harness economies of scale to make things easier for all of us?
In the short-term, there is need to urgently organise ourselves and get serious about pooled procurement.
And in the medium to long-term, we simply need to start building our internal capacity to produce vaccines and other medical necessities.
The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention points out that the continent requires about 1.3 billion doses of vaccines annually (bearing in mind that at present there is no vaccine that guarantees lifetime inoculation after one or two doses). Of the 1.3 billion doses required, Africa is producing 12 million, which is less than one percent.
In the SADC region, only South Africa presently has capacity to produce vaccines locally. There are four countries in North Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia) that can produce vaccines, one in West Africa (Senegal), and zero in East Africa (though Rwanda appears on track to become the first in that region to start doing so).
There is no way we can guarantee our own health security if we cannot produce our own medication and continue to rely on handouts, patent waivers and discounts.
Imported drugs account for between 70 and 90 percent of medicines used in Africa, and the experts tell us these cost us at least US$20 billion annually. There are presently less than 400 drug manufacturers on the continent compared to tens of thousands of such companies in regions with smaller populations than ours.
This horrible state of affairs should be sufficient motivation to invest in our pharmaceutical industry.
There is no need for every African country to build vaccine manufacturing facilities. Why can we not organise ourselves to invest in existing capacities so that we grow them into hubs that service their immediate regions and then farther afield as time goes on?
Early in 2020, the Chairperson of SADC, President Felipe Nyusi of Mozambique, rallied the region to get real about collaborations in the health sector.
“(We must) enhance vaccine research capabilities and develop regional manufacturing capacity for vaccines in the future,” President Nyusi said.
He also said, “…we must intensify co-operation 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.”
The Executive Secretary of SADC, Dr Stergomena Tax, has also made impassioned pleas within this context.
A few months ago she tweeted: “It is unfortunate that we are yet to have a COVID vaccine developed from SADC or Africa, as such, we are at the mercy of other countries to access vaccines. This is a wake-up call for enhanced regional research, pharmaceutical and manufacturing capacities.”Many others have made similar interventions ad nauseam. But is anybody listening?