EU-AU summit makes big health promises, but not on IP waivers

“On health, we had in-depth discussions about how to be pragmatic and effective when it comes to developing and producing vaccines in Africa,” said Charles Michel, President of the European Council. [EU]

EU and African leaders laid out a number of promises to secure equitable access to vaccines at the end of a two-day summit in Brussels on Friday (18 February). No decision on lifting intellectual property rights was reached, however.

Ensuring “fair and equitable access to vaccines” was at the top of the agenda at the sixth EU-AU summit.

The final declaration promised action with a range of initiatives, including the EU reaffirming its commitment to provide at least 450 million vaccine doses to Africa, in coordination with the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT) platform, by mid-2022.

‘Team Europe’ – the name chosen by the EU to support third countries’ efforts in tackling the pandemic – also pledged to provide more than $3 billion (€2.65 billion, the equivalent of 400 million vaccine doses) to the COVAX Facility and vaccination on the African continent.

The ‘Team Europe’ also plans to mobilise €425 million to speed up the pace of vaccination and support efficient distribution, the training of medical teams and the capacity of analysis and sequencing in coordination with the Africa CDC.

“On health, we had in-depth discussions about how to be pragmatic and effective when it comes to developing and producing vaccines in Africa,” European Council President Charles Michel told the final press conference.

Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chairperson of the AU Commission, added:

“We have 1.3 billion people [on our continent], we cannot sit around waiting until we can import vaccines. (…) We have an African agency, which has just been set up. We have Africa CDC, which works on pandemics. We have the instruments. With the support of our friends, these issues should be managed at a local level”.

“In short (…) I think this summit is the only one where we’ve really had a different kind of discussion. We’ve had a frank discussion,” Mahamat continued.

Senegal’s Sall also highlighted the need for action against cancer, saying that “in half of the African countries, we don’t have any radiotherapy facilities”.

Health Brief: Unequal access to vaccines takes root in EU-AU summit

While health did not feature as a topic at the previous EU-African Union (AU) summit back in 2017, it certainly will do at the upcoming summit next week.

Technology transfer in six African countries

Another much-discussed health element was the transfer of technology.

On Friday morning, the World Health Organisation and its director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hosted a “ceremony” with the heads of the EU institutions alongside French president Emmanuel Macron and South African president Cyril Ramaphosa.

They announced that Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, and Tunisia would be the first six recipients of the technology needed to produce mRNA vaccines in Africa from the South African technology hub.

“Initially, they [the chosen countries] will be benefiting from this technology, training and all the regulatory environment that’s needed for this kind of process. The only issue we have to look at is intellectual property rights,” said Sall.

EU’s alternative to IP waiver won't speed up vaccination in poorer countries: health expert

The EU’s counter-proposal to the request to waive intellectual property (IP) rights on COVID vaccines is meaningless as it deals with patents without any technology transfer, according to a health expert.

IP waivers haunted the summit

There was great anticipation in the lead up to the summit on whether talks might lead to the temporary waiver of intellectual property (IP) rights on vaccines, an idea that so far the EU has resisted. No solution was found at the summit.

According to the summit’s final declaration, the AU and the EU committed to “engaging constructively towards an agreement on a comprehensive WTO response to the pandemic, which includes trade-related, as well as intellectual property related aspects”.

“We have different ways to reach that goal. There must be a bridge between those two ways,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, speaking about “a very good, intense, constructive discussion on the question of TRIPS waiver”.

The two executives will work together and deliver a solution in spring at the latest, she added.

Ramaphosa, however, made it clear earlier in the day that he does not find it “acceptable that Africa is consistently at the back of the queue in relation to access to medicines” and that donations are “appreciated”, but “never a sustainable way or mechanism to build resilience.”

According to Ramaphosa, the issue of TRIPS waiver is now an ‘uncomfortable point’ – but, when approved, will ensure freedom to operate for entities with the requisite capacity and provide a platform to upgrade existing capabilities.

Two months ago, the South African president expressed his disappointment over the rich countries “just giving us the crumbs from their table”.

Talking at the ceremony, he was equally firm in his stance: “Governments that are really serious about ensuring that the world has access to vaccines should ensure that the TRIPS waiver is approved (…) rather than hide behind IP, the profitability of the originators,” Ramaphosa concluded.

[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna and Nathalie Weatherald]

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