Africa losing out for failing to own patents for drugs it makes

Thursday March 09 2023
A drug laboratory

Employees at the Afrigen biotechnology company in Cape Town South Africa, on October 05, 2021. The company is leading the pilot project which will use reverse-engineering to try and get their formula from the Moderna mRNA vaccine. PHOTO | RODGER BOSCH | AFP


Health experts have advised that African governments would have to ensure that they own the intellectual property (IP) rights of vaccines and drugs manufactured in their countries if they are to accrue tangible gains from the drug making momentum building on the continent.

Although, some African states have invested in research and development of vaccines and medicines, they have ended up relinquishing or selling IP rights to foreign firms, setting the vaccine manufacturing efforts back.

Because of this, the African Union is, for instance, pushing to get back the IP technologies from the firms that bought them, which has proved to be an uphill task.

The challenge

“For us to push on the manufacturing agenda, we need to get back IPs for the vaccines manufactured here from those who bought them. They don’t want to share those IPs and that’s where the challenge lies. They fear that it will be detrimental to their businesses,” Dr Lwazi Manzi, Head of Secretariat of the AU Commission on Africa's Covid-19 Response Strategy told The EastAfrican in an exclusive interview at the Africa Health Agenda International Conference (AHAIC) this week in Kigali, Rwanda.

She noted that the mRNA hub in South Africa, for instance, under Afrigen attempted to get their mRNA technology from Moderna (the holders of its IP) to facilitate knowledge transfer to the 'spokes' (companies within the hubs network). However, Moderna refused to share the IP.

Covid-19 vaccine.

Coronavirus vaccines use mRNA technology. PHOTO | FILE | NMG

Read: SA to develop first African-owned Covid vaccine

Pushing for one product

“The hub now has to reverse-engineer the vaccine to be able to come up with a product. If we got the technology, we would be able to produce our own because we have the capacity. But now it’s hard, and that’s why we still suffer so much vaccine inequity,” said Dr Lwazi.

She said because the money used to produce these vaccines on the continent comes from African governments, they ought to retain the vaccine IPs.

“The financing comes from taxpayers’ money so the IPs belong to the people,” she said.

Read: Africa dream of drug self-reliance given reality check

The advantage of African states owning vaccines and drugs IPs is that they would be able to share them with their neighbours which would help minimise vaccine inequities, like for the case of Morocco which is now going to own its IPs.

Dr Lwazi pointed out that for Africa to try and catch up in the field of vaccine and drug manufacture, the continent needed to position itself as one manufacturer pushing out one African product.

“Let us use what we have first, we have between 10 to 15 vaccine manufacturers that are already developed vaccines or aspiring to produce. Let’s map out who is doing what, consolidate and divide the labour,” she said.

WHO proof of qualification

Experts have also observed the need for an expedited process by African products to get World Health Organisation (WHO) proof of qualification. This is because, not having it gives an excuse to procurers to brand African products as not good enough.

Regarding this, Dr Lwazi said getting WHO proof of qualification remains a challenge for African products, but they were engaging WHO on the matter and it seemed to be yielding results.

gavi vaccine

A child receives an inoculation against measles supplied by the Gavi vaccine alliance in Khartoum, Sudan, on June 22, 2015. PHOTO | AFP

 “The WHO now appreciates that there is need for some kind of special dispensation for products coming from Africa to get WHO proof qualification. If they continue putting us on hold, we might wait for two or three years to get approvals, and businesses would collapse before ever getting their products out,” said Dr Lwazi.

Big procurers like the Vaccine Alliance (Gavi), United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), and others only buy products with WHO proof of qualification.

Industry stakeholders also noted the need to have consensus on a preferential procurement model that puts African products first.