South Africa leads backlash against big pharma over Covid vaccine access

The Guardian, Kaamil Ahmed

February 12, 2021

Pressure mounts for patent waivers to allow poorer countries to develop their own manufacturing capacity to boost availability.

The domination of global medicine by major pharmaceutical companies needs to be confronted to provide fairer access to vaccines, a leading South African official has said.

The scramble over Covid vaccines should alert rich countries to the power of profit-driven companies that control production of crucial medicines, said Mustaqeem De Gama, South Africa’s delegate at the World Trade Organization (WTO) on intellectual property rights.

“While Rome is burning, we are fiddling around [waiting],” said De Gama, who called on nations where many of these pharmaceutical firms are based to stop blocking a patent waiver proposed at the WTO.

Backed by dozens of developing countries, the proposal, introduced by South Africa and India, argued that bypassing intellectual property rights would allow more of the world’s population to be quickly vaccinated by boosting production.

Prominent South African businesswoman Yamkela Makupula said many were angered at not being able to access vaccines while hospitals and the economy were suffering, hit by the wave of Covid-19 linked to the new variant.

“Most countries across the world are facing recession while having to deal with the effects of the pandemic. So to only vaccinate a portion of the world and leave the rest to fend for themselves with limited resources is a very flawed strategy,” she said.

“There is no amount of economic recovery strategies that can save South Africa where it is right now. What is imperative is to get our people vaccinated in order to not only rebuild the economy but to save people’s lives.”

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