Covid vaccine manufacturers should work with poorer countries, says WTO chief

By Faisal Islam
Economics editor

  • Published
Media caption,

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is calling for voluntary licensing deals

Pharmaceutical firms manufacturing the Covid-19 vaccine should make enough for everyone in the world or voluntarily hand their technology to developing countries, says the new WTO head.

Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said it was "not acceptable" to leave poorer countries at the "end of the queue" for vaccines.

She pointed to AstraZeneca's deal to transfer its know-how to a mass vaccine manufacturer in India.

Such "voluntary licensing... could save many more people," she said.

"There is some capacity in developing countries unused now. Let's have the same kind of arrangement that AstraZeneca has with the Serum Institute of India," she told the BBC's Economics Editor Faisal Islam.

"Novovax, J& J and all the others should follow suit," she said, referring to other vaccine manufacturers.

Dr Okonjo-Iweala, who became director general of the World Trade Organization earlier this month, acknowledged that members were split on the issue of relaxing WTO rules on intellectual property so that more drug manufacturers can make the jabs.

The issue has been pushed by India, South Africa and dozens of poorer countries who want to freely replicate the vaccines.

Wealthier countries have resisted such a move although the Biden administration in the US has signalled it is considering the plans.

South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa this week described the hoarding of vaccines and refusal to freely share vaccine-making blueprints as "vaccine apartheid".

But Dr Okonjo-Iweala said the issue, known as the Trips waiver, is for the next pandemic and all efforts now must be focused on increasing manufacturing capacity.

She said the world must avoid the decade-long wait many developing countries faced to get anti-HIV drugs.

"I'm very concerned," she said. "The kind of inequities we see in vaccine access are really not acceptable, you can't have a situation in which, you know, 10 countries have administered 70% of vaccine doses in the world, and there are countries that don't have one single dose".

Media caption,

Long Covid: 'It's like someone has piled sandbags on top of me'

Until the end of last year Dr Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria's former finance minister, chaired the global vaccine alliance, Gavi, which aims to increase access to vaccines around the world.

Many nations in the developed world, which began their own vaccinations months ago, have faced criticism for buying or ordering more vaccines than they need.

The World Health Organization said in January that over 39 million vaccines had been given in 49 wealthier countries, while one poorer nation had just 25 doses.

But many of the wealthier countries placed orders for doses with pharmaceutical companies before knowing whether the vaccine in development would be effective. They were hedging their bets - placing multiple orders in the hope that at least some of them would work out.

The UK, which has ordered 400 million vaccine doses and will have many left over, has said it will donate most of its surplus vaccine supply to poorer countries.