The case for an African-led vaccine initiative

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Perhaps COVID 19 can be a springboard for African scientists and governments to invest time and resources into developing an initiative for developing an African vaccine.

At the outset President Akufo-Addo said the pandemic had given Ghana an opportunity to scale up domestic production for medical material, protective equipment as well as medicines, sanitisers and the rest. “We believe that with sufficient support and inspiration from government, domestic manufacturers and local enterprises are capable of rising to the challenge facing us and find opportunities to meet our needs from Ghana.” According to President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, the Ghana approach has been focused on mobilising the country’s social forces – religious, scientific, academic, political and civil society – to deal with the pandemic’s threat.

In his seventh state address on COVID -19 strategies, the president hailed scientists at the University of Ghana who successfully sequenced genomes of the virus responsible for the COVID-19; thus obtaining important information about the genetic composition of viral strains. President Akufo-Addo described this as a significant milestone in Ghana’s response to the pandemic, as it will strengthen surveillance for tracking mutations of the virus. It will also aid in tracing the sources of community infections in people with no known contact with confirmed cases, he added.

“Their work makes us proud to be Ghanaian; and, who knows, God may work through them to discover a vaccine. What a triumph that would be! Indeed, the recent genomic characterisation of African coronaviruses by our own scientists illustrates the need to establish the needed enabling framework for sustainable vaccine manufacturing in Africa.”

President Akufo-Addo, who is fast establishing himself as the moral voice for Africa, challenged African leaders to advance an African-led partnerships to drive scientific innovations for the control of viral diseases through vaccination. “Ghana, recognising this critical public health tool, will support the African Vaccine Manufacturing Initiative – which is chaired by Noguchi’s Prof. William Ampofo – to promote the agenda for vaccine development and manufacturing in Africa by Africans for the world,” says the president.

In an address to ECOWAS leaders last Thursday, President Akufo-Addo stated: “We want to get to the point where we can have an African vaccine to deal with the problem because mutations of the virus are different; so, we need to have our own ways of dealing with it.” These are the clearest statements yet by an African leader on the need for Africa to take its destiny into its hands and reduce over-reliance on the west as the sole source of scientific innovation.

President Akufo-Addo’s admonition comes on the heels of an unfortunate and racist proposal by a French scientist that Africans should be used to clinically test their vaccine before certifying its use. The unfortunate proposal was deservedly condemned by human rights advocates across the world. I am particularly impressed with the role two of Africa’s greatest footballers – Didier Drogba and Samuel E’to – played in publicly condemning the denigrating comments about Africa.

Also, the World Health Organisation’s Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus — who is from Ethiopia — called the comments racist and said: “Africa can’t and won’t be a testing ground for any vaccine”. The French Doctor, Jean-Paul Mira, was compelled by international pressure to apologise – but many African human rights insist that the apology is not enough, and are urging their governments not to bow to any international pressure to use Africans as ‘guinea pigs.’

Perhaps the president’s call for an African vaccine initiative is based on the notion that it has taken long for African governments to invest in medical research and development. Some analysts argue that African scientist must contribute to global knowledge on vaccine and medicine development, especially for diseases that are common to poor countries. Increasingly, there is need for African governments to invest more in pharmaceutical research and development to reduce the impact of ‘neglected diseases’ on their people.

Evidence shows that approximately 90 percent of all medical research is directed toward diseases affecting only ten percent of the world population. According to a report by the Global Forum for Health Research (GFHR), malaria, pneumonia, diarrhea and tuberculosis make up 21 percent of the global disease burden, yet they receive 0.3 percent of all public and private spending on health.

The western pharmaceutical companies focus on medicines for diseases with a large market that can bear higher prices and sideline research into diseases with a low rate of profit. These diseases are often described as the neglected diseases typically affecting developing countries. While international collaboration is the emerging trend in vaccine development, the continuous demands by western pharmaceutical companies for patent protection could deepen a diplomatic row between Africa and the developed world.

Argument for patents

Developed countries justify their demand for patent protection on two issues: namely, man has a natural right to his ideas and society is obliged to enforce that right. The second is distributive justice – it is unfair to allow people who did not invest time and money into an invention to compete with the inventor under normal market conditions. But when examined in the context of justification of drug patents, this argument is flawed. The question is whether equal access to drugs does not also require fairness.

However, those against patents argue that the patent system allows the prices of patented items to go beyond the reach of the poor. They insist that the introduction of Trade Related International Property Rights (TRIPS) in the pharmaceutical sector gives companies power to take legal action to postpone the introduction of generic alternatives even in dire situations. The new medicines that are vital for the survival of millions of people across the world are already too costly, and patent protection has just worsened it. Besides, investments in research and development (R&D) on ‘neglected diseases’ are not receiving the needed attention.

PPPs

Encouragingly, collaborations between the public and private sectors (PPPs) are increasing. Health partnerships can potentially instigate the exclusive nature of patent-protected drugs, as the private sector works in collaboration with the public sector to address complex health problems. PPPs are viewed as important conduits for health delivery in developing countries. They help build collective capacity to respond to turbulent health conditions like COVID-19. In fact, PPPs have already kicked-off in Ghana with the ongoing construction of two isolation hospitals in Accra. This is in response to COVID-19 and a shows a good rate of PPPs in Ghana.

This calls for strengthening public-private-partnerships (PPPs) on Research and Development (R&D) in medicine as a potential engine for development.  There is need for a new regulatory framework to remove all barriers to drug development in developing countries. This could take the form of an international ‘Neglected disease Treaty’, specifically designed to stimulate R&D on effective, affordable and accessible drugs and vaccines. This treaty should address the imbalance between the rights and obligations of companies and governments under the current international treaties (e.g., TRIPS and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, UNDHR) in order to make drugs for neglected diseases and vaccines a public good. The treaty should contain specific measures (tax incentives) to stimulate industrial research into neglected diseases.

Technology transfer

Expectedly, technology transfer from developed to developing countries should have been the biggest boost to pharmaceutical R&D. Unfortunately, western pharmaceutical giants have not demonstrated any willingness to transfer technology to developing countries; perhaps because of emphasis on returns on investment. As Africa is planning to invest in vaccine production, western pharmaceuticals should demonstrate sincerity by helping to finance research and development into vaccines.

Western pharmaceuticals should see the production of medicines for neglected diseases as part of their social responsibility. In the spirit of promoting access to health, Pharma should concentrate on donating essential drugs to the poorest countries, while making profit from ‘lifestyle’ drugs. This could boost their long-term profitability and enhance their brand image.

Receiving countries will have to respond positively by providing tax incentives to donating companies.  In this regard, a resolution by the UN sub-committee for the Protection of Human rights in 1999 saying that International Property Rights (IPRs) should be made to serve social welfare is still relevant. Equally relevant is the UNDP’s plea for rewriting the rules of globalisation to make them work for people, not just profit.

Overall, in the wake of COVID-19, there is a need for strengthening public-private-partnerships (PPPs) on R&D in medicine as a potential engine for development. As President Akufo-Addo said, “the beautiful thing about crisis is that it creates opportunities”.   Also, there is need for a new regulatory framework that removes all barriers to drug development.  This could take the form of an international ‘Neglected Disease Treaty’, specifically designed to stimulate R&D on effective, affordable and accessible drugs and vaccines.

As President Akufo-Addo told his colleague ECOWAS Presidents: “We are in new territories; these are extraordinary times, and it requires a unique level of solidarity among ourselves to be able to find lasting solutions”.

 

 

(***The writer is a Communications and Development Management Specialist, and a Social Justice Advocate.  All views expressed in this article are my personal views and do not represent those of any organisation. (Email: [email protected]. Mobile: 0202642504 0243327586/0264327586)

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