South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Monday that if wealthy nations hold on to Covid-19 shots while millions in poor countries die waiting for them it would amount to “vaccine apartheid”, reports Reuters.
South Africa and India have been pushing for a waiver on some intellectual property rights for vaccines and medicines at the World Trade Organization.
US President Joe Biden backed the proposal last week, though it may still take months to reach a deal.
Ramaphosa called on South Africans to support the waiver in a weekly newsletter, saying vaccines should be “a global public good”.
He wrote: “A situation in which the populations of advanced, rich countries are safely inoculated while millions in poorer countries die in the queue would be tantamount to vaccine apartheid.”
Sub-Saharan Africa has administered the fewest vaccines relative to its population of any region, with roughly just eight doses per 1,000 people.
Ramaphosa recalled that twenty years ago South Africa faced off against “big pharma” over efforts to import and manufacture affordable generic antiretroviral medicines to treat people with HIV/AIDS.
“Years later, the world is in the grip of another deadly pandemic and once again, South Africa is waging a struggle that puts global solidarity to the test,” he said.
Ramaphosa said South Africa was one of only five countries on the African continent able to manufacture vaccines and that there was a need for new capacity to be built.
South Africa has ordered enough Covid-19 vaccines for 46 million of its 60 million people via bilateral deals with Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer. The Johnson & Johnson shots will be made locally by Aspen Pharmacare.
Meanwhile, the BBC reports that despite many African countries struggling to obtain enough Covid-19 vaccines, some have thousands of expired doses they have been unable to use.
Malawi has been left with 16,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and South Sudan has nearly 60,000, all now past their expiry date of April 13.
Both countries say they have decided to destroy these consignments, donated via the African Union, despite WHO asking for them to be kept while it investigates whether the expiry date can be safely extended.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, meanwhile, says it cannot use most of the nearly two million Oxford-AstraZeneca doses it received under the global Covax scheme for poorer countries.
Only about 1,000 of the doses had been administered by the end of last month, and most of this batch, with an expiry date of June 24 is now being sent to Ghana, one of the few countries to have already used up its initial vaccine supply.
The African Union is now redistributing batches originally delivered to South Africa in February, with an April 13 expiry date. The South African government decided not to use them, concerned the vaccine offered insufficient protection from the variant prevalent in the country.
Some unused doses have even been sent from Africa to Jamaica.
The problem in Africa is that many countries failed to prepare adequately before receiving the vaccines, a spokesman for WHO in Africa said.
“The continent as a whole knows how to vaccinate and has been vaccinating for other diseases for many years, but the key is how do you scale that up and at speed?”