Economies across the world, especially in Africa, are unlikely to recover should the scarcity of Covid-19 vaccine persist, warns Director-General of the World Trade Organization Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
Dr Okonjo-Iweala further warned that without the transfer of technology and know-how, manufacture or increased output of Covid-19 vaccines is not assured.
“The unequal global recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic is fragile. There’s one thing behind that all: The issue of vaccine equity,” said Dr Okonjo-Iweala during a news conference on the annual global WTO trade forecast in Geneva, Switzerland.
“We’re not really going to have a sustainable recovery as long as vaccine scarcity continues.”
She warned that the supply scarcity is driving behaviour, and not only fuelling countries to competitively bid on vaccines, but also to “bid away vaccines from Covax,” the global coalition tasked with improving Covid-19 vaccine access.
“That’s why Covax has been struggling to deliver what it should,” she explained.
Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s remarks come at a time the East African region is experiencing a Covid-19 vaccine shortage amidst a third wave of the Covid-19 that has seen lockdowns in Rwanda, Uganda and in Kenya. Dr Okonjo-Iweala outlined ways the WTO can alleviate the scarcity across the supply chain for Covid-19 vaccines.
“One way is by encouraging the removal of trade restrictions while working with manufacturers to unlock bottlenecks and spread their production expertise,” she said.
“The other is technology. Without the transfer of technology and know-how, you also cannot manufacture or increase output.”
Dr Okonjo-Iweala said since the discussions are being held by her members, she would not wish to sway the debate for now.
“But I hope they will come to a conclusion that is pragmatic, allowing developing countries to have access but also protecting research, development, and innovation.”
The WTO boss made the remarks amidst WTO negotiations on intellectual property rights waiver for Covid-19 vaccines, which began in November 2020.
In the face of glaring shortages and rapid transmission of SARS-CoV-2, on Oct 2, 2020, India and South Africa proposed a temporary waiver of the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.
The waiver would permit countries to suspend intellectual property protections for Covid-19 medical products—including vaccines, medicines, diagnostics, personal protective equipment, and ventilators—for the duration of the pandemic.
The aim is to speed up access to affordable medical products for the prevention, containment, or treatment of Covid-19.
Meanwhile, the WTO, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Health Organization proposed a $50 billion plan to end the pandemic, foster a sustainable recovery, and generate an estimated $9 trillion in global economic returns by 2025.
Dr Okonjo-Iweala said the plan includes $10 billion allocated to boosting preparedness for and prevention of future pandemics.