A Solid Partnership for African Health Sovereignty

March 2022

The pandemic has exposed how much Africa has been disadvantaged so far in the production, distribution and access to vaccines. First steps are being taken to allow African states to have sovereignty over their health care. But much remains to be done.

By Rose Ngugi

Southern Voice Rose Ngugi Africa Health
Shelley Christians Jordaan / REUTERS

As I write this, we have just passed the second anniversary of the pandemic. Although these are difficult times to live in, we are lucky to be in a world of science in which vaccines are produced faster than ever. And yet, here we are, about to start year three of the pandemic. By now, we all know why it’s still ongoing: the unequal roll-out of, access to, and production of vaccines.

While Africa’s share of confirmed global cases is only 2 percent, and the deaths amount to 3 percent of the world’s total, it is clear that no one will be safe if Africa is not safe. As such, we need to increase, collectively, the effort to ensure that African vaccination programmes are truly successful. That includes a fair and equitable access to vaccines, but also ramping up production in the continent itself and investing more in science.

In a new Southern Voice policy brief, researchers from Kenya Institute for Public Policy Researchrecommend strengthening primary health care systems in Africa. The focus should be on financing, preventive healthcare, and human resources, and on establishing integrated information systems and health technology.

The impact of the pandemic shows the need for countries to work together. The aim should be to increase access to and distribution of vaccines to contain Covid-19 and its variants now and in the future.  The recent European Union-African Union Summit in February yielded some important results in this regard.

But is it too little, too late?

What Africa can do

Many African governments do not meet internationally recommended targets on national budget allocations for their health sectors. It means that much of the financial burden of primary health care is borne by individuals, mostly through out-of-pocket spending. Add to that the medical brain drain, for example in Nigeria, and you have a recipe for disaster. Focused efforts are needed to reform national healthcare spending on the continent.

It is excellent news that the African Development Bank committed to spend three billion US dollars to support the pharmaceutical industry in the next ten years. African leaders are also committed to play their role in the renewed partnership.

But far more needs to be done to retain health sovereignty. The pandemic has revealed that 99 percent of vaccines are not produced in Africa. For a resilient and sustainable health system, this situation must change. The continent needs to produce its own vaccines. Only then can it achieve health sovereignty.

To promote local manufacturing of Covid-19 vaccines within Africa, countries must invest in developing requisite infrastructure such as reliable electricity and cold chain storage to properly store vaccines. It is also pivotal to explore the manufacturing of other “recommended vaccines” for economies of scale to ensure sustainability. Likewise, investing in regional partnerships on the continent is vital. This is the case of the West African Health Organisation (WAHO), which brings extensive knowledge from previous experiences, such as the Ebola epidemic.

Southern Voice member think tanks in Africa are doing fantastic research into all areas and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) affected by the pandemic. Be it health access, food security, economy, or education. They should be supported with more attention and funding. More than ever, expertise from the Global South can be translated into universal solutions that benefit vulnerable populations around the world.

What the international community can do

The international communitycan support these African efforts in various ways.

The EU has committed to support vaccine manufacturing by investing in production capacities, voluntary technology transfer, and strengthening a regulatory framework in the continent. We urge EU to go even further and rally behind breaking vaccine monopolies.

In October 2020, India and South Africa proposed to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to temporarily waive certain intellectual property protections. It would include patents, copyrights, and trade secrets on all medical goods used to treat Covid. While the majority of the low- and middle- income countries supported this, the EU, United Kingdom, and Switzerland are blocking the WTO from reaching a consensus. The issue now looks likely to loom over the WTO’s ministerial meeting in June – almost 20 months after it was first proposed.

At last month’s EU-AU summit, the WHO announced the first six countries chosen to receive the tools needed to produce mRNA vaccine in Africa: Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, and Tunisia. They will receive training to produce the mRNA from the global mRNA transfer hub in Cape Town. If there is true collaboration with pharmaceutical companies owning the mRNA, this would cut the development and approval period by one year, potentially saving thousands or millions of lives.

Although these are all positive steps, they are not sufficient. Despite some important announcements, the EU-AU summit ended with a declaration with weak wording on the WTO’s role in the fight against the pandemic. We call on the EU to support the temporary intellectual property waiver.

What we need is a solid partnership to build a common future. A future that will bring us all more peace and equality. At Southern Voice, we stand ready to make this partnership a reality and contribute to a global solution with southern perspectives.

Rose Ngugi rund grau

Dr Rose Ngugi is Executive Director of the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research (Kippra) and chair of Southern Voice, a network of 59 think tanks from the Global South. Southern Voice and the Robert Bosch Stiftung collaborate in the framework of a strategic partnership.

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