Wednesday, May 22, 2024

European Union ensures global and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines

The European Union Delegation to Botswana and SADC has taken note of the article “US, EU making it difficult for Botswana to get corona vaccine” published in the Sunday Standard of 24-30 January. The article claims that western countries, including the EU, “hoard the COVID-19 vaccine at the expense of Batswana who are dying and will die of a virus ravaging the world”. This assertion, as well as the article as a whole, is not only misleading; it is spreading disinformation about the EU’s policy to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the EU has been leading the multilateral response to fight the pandemic and to ensure global and equitable access to vaccines, tests and treatments. 

Global cooperation and solidarity will be the only chance to defeat the virus everywhere, but also to start a sustainable global recovery. And the EU – which is the largest donor to WHO and the UN – is playing its full part. The EU, together with its Member States, “Team Europe”, has mobilised a global recovery package of EUR 38.5 billion to help partners across the world address the immediate health emergency and humanitarian needs, strengthen health systems and support the economic recovery and social protection.  

Here in Botswana, Team Europe has supplied PPEs and key medical supplies worth over 1.4 million BWP through the EU Humanitarian Office and the Federation of the Red Cross. The EU has frontloaded the disbursement of 26 million BWP to the State budget in order to help the Government to finance COVID-19 related expenditures. Moreover, the EU has allocated 5.7 million BWP in fresh funds, to protect the most vulnerable, including support to the victims of domestic violence and defend the rights of marginalised groups. We are supporting long-term economic recovery, like the beef value chain and sustainable tourism. 

On the regional level, we have supported SADC with, for example, transport and transit facilitation. We have allocated an additional 64 million euros for Southern Africa for humanitarian assistance, of which 1.95 million go to Botswana.

Continental support for Africa to overcome COVID is not a myth. A most recent example of how the EU strengthened support to health systems in Africa is the new partnership launched in December between the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) to strengthen the capacity of Africa CDC to prepare for and respond to public health threats in Africa. 

No one will be safe until everyone is safe. Therefore, to win the battle against this pandemic, immunisation needs to be accessible to all across the globe. 

From the start of the pandemic, the EU’s key priority has been that no one should be left behind, and it has supported a multilateral approach to ensure the provision of vaccines everywhere. Up to date, over EUR 850 million have been announced by Team Europe for COVAX to help secure 1.3 billion doses of vaccination for 92 low and middle-income countries by the end of the year and in support of the EU’s efforts to make the COVID-19 vaccines a global public good. 

All 54 countries in Africa have joined COVAX, 46 of which will be direct beneficiaries of the EU’s contribution. Other countries, like Botswana, have joined the COVAX Facility under the Self-financing component and will be paying themselves for their vaccine doses procured through this mechanism. COVAX is the world’s best and main route for delivering on international vaccine solidarity, and the EU is its main contributor. 

International solidarity is an integral part of the EU’s vaccine strategy which offers the EU Member States the possibility to offer a part of their vaccines to other countries.

The EU has secured 2.3 billon doses of vaccines as part of a broad portfolio. These advance purchase agreements with individual vaccine manufacturers concluded by the Commission on behalf of the 27 EU Member States were meant at enabling manufacturers to make the necessary investments in production facilities and accelerating the development and production at scale of safe and effective vaccines. 

The EU has thus made important and risky investments so that together with the regulatory authorisation procedures that it has in place, it accelerates the development of safe and efficacious vaccines, which will also be to the benefit of the rest of the world. 

The advance purchase agreements offer the EU Member States the possibility to redirect or donate part of their vaccines to other countries. They will be a bridging solution until COVAX is able to supply large enough volumes directly from companies. The EU vaccine sharing mechanism will pay special attention to Africa, and it will above all benefit health workers and humanitarian needs. 

The EU normally disburses budget support in Africa, providing partner countries, such as Botswana, with additional fiscal space to finance their public policies, bear the costs of reforms, and build their administrative capacities. In 2020, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, budget support disbursements have reached unprecedented levels of up to EUR 3.5 billion, as part of the Team Europe global response. In the Abuja Declaration of 2001, the EU’s partner countries in Africa committed to spending at least 15% of the government budget on health. 

The intellectual property system, with its checks and balances, does not stand in the way of global efforts to fight the pandemic. It is part of the solution to the challenge of universal and equitable access to vaccines and COVID-19 treatments. Instead, fragile and underfunded healthcare and procurement systems, a limited number of health workers, inadequate cold chain equipment, spikes in demand, lack of manufacturing capacity, and export restrictions are more likely to have a negative impact on the access to COVID-19 related technologies.

Being aware of the importance of the global supply chains in the pharmaceutical sector, the EU – in cooperation with WTO partners – presented the WTO “Trade and Health” initiative with the aim to facilitate global access to affordable healthcare products, including for vulnerable countries without appropriate manufacturing capacities. 

Unprecedented collaboration among governments, pharmaceutical innovators, foundations and researchers is taking place in the development of vaccines. Vaccines are being approved within 12 months where normally it takes 10 years. Much of this rapid response, like, for example, the vaccines based on mRNA technology, builds on knowledge and research capacity developed over many years with the support of intellectual property.

The next great challenge is the manufacture of the vaccines at a great scale. The best way of achieving this is by disseminating the technology and know-how of those who developed them through collaboration. Intellectual property is a key factor in providing a framework that enables that collaboration. Developers of vaccines can enter into manufacturing agreements, transfer technology and expand production with their licensees. A main concern is that suspending the intellectual property rights will not enhance such collaboration and manufacturing but, to the contrary, will slow down or even block it, to the detriment of all. 

The concerns raised in the discussion in the WTO can be addressed through the Trade-Related Aspects of International Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement and the flexibilities it offers. Primarily, there is the possibility to grant compulsory licences, i.e. licences granted by governments without the patent owner’s consent. This includes the possibility of granting fast-track licences, where no negotiations with the patent holder are required, for export to countries with no or insufficient manufacturing capacity. These are legitimate tools for the countries in need, as they are in the midst of the pandemic. Some countries conveyed difficulties with regard to the implementation of these flexibilities, and the EU is ready to discuss ways of overcoming these difficulties so that administrative burdens do not stand in the way of manufacturing and delivering the vaccines to where they are needed. 

Given all the above, the EU continues to question the rationale and the potential benefit of the waiver proposed by India and South Africa when compared to the approach based on licensing arrangements combined with the flexibilities under the TRIPS Agreement. 

This is not the last pandemic the world may have to deal with. Measures are needed that preserve the incentives to innovate and invest into the research related to health. The solutions for the patients in need can only be delivered through close public-private cooperation and intellectual property is a key element of this equation.

The important and complex issues brought up in the WTO in the context of the ongoing discussion merit further reflection and significant consideration to determine the exact nature of challenges faced by WTO Members in addressing COVID-19. The EU is committed to an open and comprehensive dialogue with all WTO Members to explore how the multilateral rules-based trading system can best support universal and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. 

The EU will explore all further available options to provide its partners, including Botswana, with access to COVID-19 vaccines!

Ambassador Jan Sadek, Head of the EU Delegation to Botswana and SADC


Read this week's paper