Experts Push for Generic COVID-19 Vaccines

Health experts are pushing for the opening up of generic drugs for Covid-19 vaccine production to benefit especially poor and low incoming countries.

By Halima Athumani

At the onset of the pandemic, the World Health Organisation set up an equal accelerator to oversee among other things, equitable distribution of vaccines, making vaccines easily available and to raise funds for research and development. However, this stalled.

Shailly Gupta, Advisor at Access Campaign of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) observes that there is a lot of stress being put on equitable distribution and on ensuring that everyone who needs it gets it. „But, what is the reality so far? We have seen vaccine apartheid. We have seen that there’s colonialism happening when it comes to vaccine access. We have seen vaccine Nationalism.”

In October 2020, India and South Africa called for a blanket suspension of intellectual property rights on Covid-19 medical tools until herd immunity is reached. In a presentation to the Taz Panter Foundation workshop for African journalists Shailly notes that both India and South Africa have recognized that intellectual property remains one of the barriers for scaling up and production when it comes to access to medicines.

MSF analysis indicates that buyers of the cepheid GeneXpert Covid-19 test kit in the US and Canada are paying $30-$50 per test. Supply in Africa remains an issue with machinery gathering dust in many middle and low-income countries where the kits could be produced, yet costs of goods including materials, manufacturing, overheads, and other indirect expenses for each cartridge is as low as $3 at high volumes. Shailly says the cost should be $5 dollars per test.

There are just ten countries that have been able to vaccinate 40 percent of their population

More than 1.87 billion doses of vaccines have been supplied globally, but there are just ten countries that have been able to vaccinate 40 percent of their population. These include the USA, Seychelles, United Arab Emirates with 70 percent of their populations vaccinated.

In Africa, countries like DR Congo, Ethiopia and Egypt have not been able to vaccinate even one percent of their population, yet they heavily depend on India, which has halted export of the vaccine due to the rising number of Coronavirus infections and deaths. Uganda has vaccinated just over 1% of its population with at least the first of 2 doses.

Shirlly adds that Big Pharma continue to engage even in the pandemic with the business as usual, an approach that means profit-making. In 2019, the WHO brought to the World Health Assembly a resolution on more transparency on the side of pharmaceutical companies to ensure that consumers have a better understanding of the cost which goes into vaccine research, development and production.

Dr Alfred Driwale the Assistant Commissioner, Vaccines and Immunization in Ministry of Health Uganda explains that this was because the consumers are in a better position to negotiate for prices with manufactures from an informed point of view. Unfortunately, the resolution was opposed by big economies behind pharmaceuticals that were maximising profits in the vaccine industry.

„So, the issue of allowing other countries and corporates to produce generics is aimed at increasing production. While they hold their patents, so that the vaccines are produced on a scale that meets global demand. And the generic products are often cheaper.”

Dr Driwale argues that most African countries including Uganda cannot vaccinate 22 million people with a vaccine that costs $44 or even $10.

„So, the only way to contain this outbreak is indeed for countries to be given the right to produce the generic forms at costs that can be afforded. Even today, the cost aside, the number of doses is the limitation. So, if the generics are allowed to be produced, then you’ll get more factories producing, Which means you are expanding the production capacity.”

With global distribution of vaccines declining due to the crisis in India, Dr Yonas Tegegn Woldemariam the WHO Country Representative in Uganda says, Africa including Uganda will have to depend on the goodwill of developed countries that are currently donating excess vaccines to the Covax facility.

African countries will have to wait for the next intellectual property negotiations expected to take place in Canada June 8-9th during the 44th G-7 meeting. A conclusion will hopefully be reached by end of November ahead of the WTO Ministerial Conference that runs from 30th November to 3rd December. 

Halima Athumani is a freelance print, online and radio journalist based in Kampala, Uganda.