The European Union has been accused of perpetuating “vaccine apartheid”, as new analysis suggested it could soon be forced to throw away some 25 million more coronavirus vaccine doses than it has donated to African nations so far in 2022.
Close to 55 million doses held in the EU are set to expire at the end of February, according to data shared with the People’s Vaccine Alliance and published on the eve of a Brussels summit of African and European leaders.
This considerably outstrips the roughly 30 million doses donated to African nations between 1 January and 8 February, figures also collated by health analytics firm Airfinity suggest.
It comes amid a potential showdown in Brussels at the African Union-EU summit this week over European member states’ alleged blocking of proposals for an intellectual property waiver allowing the production of Covid vaccines, tests and treatments on the African continent.
African Union leaders have sought to convince their EU counterparts to include a commitment to “engage constructively towards the conclusion of a targeted and time-bound waiver” in the summit’s joint declaration, multiple reports suggest.
French president Emmanuel Macron, who is hosting the summit, voiced support for a waiver last summer, but campaigners say he has done little since to challenge the EU’s stance on the issue.
Highlighting the reticence in Brussels, French trade minister Franck Riester said at a conference this week that, while “intellectual property should never be a brake” to vaccine production, “we do not want to call into question a system of intellectual property that allows for innovation and that has made it possible, in particular, to have vaccines very quickly in the case of Covid-19”.
Sani Baba Mohammed, regional secretary for Africa and Arab countries at Public Services International, a unions federation comprising one of the nearly 80 groups which make up the People’s Vaccine Alliance, said: “The EU claims they are promoting a ‘prosperous partnership of equals’ with the African Union.
“Yet they are throwing more vaccine doses in the trash than they are donating to us, while continuing to block a waiver on vaccine patents which would enable us to produce our own vaccines. What’s equal about that?
“This vaccine apartheid – perpetuated by the EU – has a brutal human cost. Our livelihoods continue to be destroyed, our economies shattered, our health workers pushed beyond the brink.
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Mr Mohammed said it was “encouraging” that the African Union “is standing up to the EU” and asking for a reference to the waiver to be included in the summit’s outcome document, adding: “The EU must stop standing in the way.”
Just 11 per cent of people in Africa are fully vaccinated, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said earlier this month – warning that the vaccination rate needs to increase sixfold if the continent is to meet the UN health agency’s target of 70 per cent, set for mid-2022.
While, as of June 2021, the EU had contributed more than €3bn to the UN’s Covax programme – which accounts for nearly 60 per cent of the doses received African nations, according to the WHO – the vaccine equity scheme has now run out of funding, after missing its target to inoculate 20 per cent of people in poorer nations by the end of last year.
Meanwhile, just eight per cent of the vaccine doses exported from Europe are sold to Africa, according to Airfinity – although this percentage varies significantly between member states.
While the EU has pledged €1bn to support the set-up of vaccine factories in Africa, the People’s Vaccine Alliance claimed that, being under the grip of pharmaceutical firms, these will not give countries autonomy over the vaccine supplies produced there.
“European Commission president, Ursula Von der Leyen, said at the beginning of the pandemic that the vaccine should be a global public good,” said Christian Aid’s pan-Africa senior advocacy advisor, Joab Okanda.
“Yet instead, she has ensured it is a private profit opportunity, raking in billions for Big Pharma and the EU, while almost 9 out of 10 people in Africa aren’t fully vaccinated, two years into this deadly pandemic. This is shameful.”
Urging European nations to “stop blocking” African producers from making their own Covid vaccine doses, Oxfam’s health policy manager, Anna Marriott, said: “If there truly is a common agenda between the unions, then the EU would stop putting the interests of pharmaceutical companies, who have reaped billions from the pandemic, ahead of African lives.
“These vaccines were publicly funded, and the recipes should be shared with the world to allow all qualified producers to make these vital shots.”
A European Commission spokesperson said that vaccination is a member state competence, saying: “While we are working with the member states to manage the purchase and delivery of the vaccines, they plan the national vaccination process and the process of donations, taking into account the foreseen expiration date of the vaccines.”
The Commission discusses Covax donations with member states in the Vaccine Steering Board every week, encouraging them to plan ahead, the spokesperson said, adding that “where donations via GAVI are not possible (due for example, to short shelf life), we work with member states to put arrangements in place for bilateral donations to countries who wish to take these doses, so that as few as possible are wasted”.
On the subject of a waiver, a spokesperson said the Commission had “shown flexibility to consider a solution that, by clarifying or waiving certain obligations” would allow World Trade Organisation members “to authorise a company to manufacture and export Covid-19 pharmaceutical products in a fast and simplified manner without the consent of the patent owner”.
This “would also ensure that countries with no or insufficient manufacturing capacity do not face any obstacles or legal uncertainty when they import these products”, they said.
But they said the full waiving of patents and other rights “would not in itself help reaching the objective of the widest and timely distribution of Covid-19 vaccines”, adding: “On the contrary, we need measures that preserve the ongoing unprecedented collaborations between pharmaceutical companies that yield record supplies of vaccines as well as incentives to innovate and invest in research on Covid-19 and its variants.
“All these elements must go hand in hand if we are to support the increasing of production facilities in regions such as Africa. The production will not increase if there is no transfer of know-how and investment and, for that to happen, we need the intellectual property framework which secures the rights of innovators. The EU’s approach combines all these necessary elements.”