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Needed: Dr Ogbuagu and his ilk to save Africa from ‘vaccine apartheid’

Monday February 22 2021
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A healthcare receives a Covid-19 vaccine in South Africa on February 18, 2021. PHOTO | PHILL MAGAKOE | AFP

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO

Most Africans outside Nigeria have probably not heard of Dr Onyema Ogbuagu.

Ogbuagu is a Nigerian-born medical doctor and researcher, who made his name by investigating some of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases like HIV/Aids and Ebola.

He is one of the brains behind Pfizer-BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine and plies his trade in America. His homeland Nigeria has not developed a Covid-19 vaccine, nor secured the ones that are out there and started vaccinations.

With the right scientific, research, and industrial ecosystem, and money (this could have been chump change from Nigeria’s oil billions) there’s no reason why Ogbuagu and the cast of other great Nigerian medical minds in the US and UK, couldn’t develop a vaccine out of a lab in Lagos.

However, like tens of other professionals in Africa, they or their families were driven out of Nigeria by bad politics, violence, corruption, and in previous years, brutal repression by military juntas.

There is now a growing global movement agitating for Covid-19 vaccine justice, and denouncing “vaccine apartheid”, where the rich industrialised nations are buying up doses equivalent to up to six times their populations, and Africa and other developing countries have nothing.

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Many countries and pressure groups have appealed to the World Health Organisation and the rich nations to push for compulsory licensing of Covid-19 vaccine patents from drug makers.

The goal is to get vaccine makers like Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Oxford-AstraZeneca to suspend their intellectual property monopoly, release the secret sauce, and allow everyone who can to produce and supply the vaccines.

The moral and humanitarian case is compelling, but there are also many troublesome things about it.

We have been there before. When the HIV/Aids therapeutics started coming on the market over 10 years ago, there were similar demands for compulsory licencing. Subsequently, there were campaigns for a range of other critical drugs.

The main argument against compulsory licencing is that in the end, you will have no one developing medicines and vaccines, because why would companies do it if they are not going to make a profit on their investment? Some governments have invested billions of taxpayers’ money in Covid-19 vaccines, yes, but they are actually paying the companies for their intellectual resources. And, thirdly, if American and British taxes are spent on vaccines, surely it is stands to reason that they should get it first.

The bigger problem is that Africa is basically accepting inferiority, if its position is that for all diseases, including those that ravage mostly the continent like Ebola, our default position is to sit around and wait for the west to develop treatments and vaccines then beg, scream, and agitate for them.

But most all, we don’t have to. The amount of money for Covid-related interventions in Africa stolen by corrupt politicians and officials, is more than enough to buy vaccine for every African that needs it. Also, a small portion of it spent on retaining and funding our best researchers is more than enough to get us vaccines.

Compulsory licensing would subsidise our criminality and negligence, and undermine the demand to develop these capacities and competencies at home. If it is done for Covid-19, it should be the last time.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]


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