What Ramaphosa is not telling you about the COVID-19 vaccine

President Cyril Ramaphosa recently warned against vaccine nationalism, where rich countries hoard COVID-19 vaccines for their own citizens and disadvantage poor countries.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum’s digital Davos conference, Ramaphosa said he is “deeply concerned about the problem of vaccine nationalism, which, unless addressed, will endanger the recovery of all countries”.

He said rich countries acquired large doses of the vaccine from developers and manufacturers, sometimes up to four times what their population needs.

“There is no need for a country which has 40 million people to acquire 160 million doses when the world need access to those vaccines,” he said.

The president urged wealthy countries to release the excess vaccines that they have ordered and are hoarding.

“Ending the pandemic worldwide will require greater collaboration on the rollout of vaccines, ensuring that no country is left behind in this effort,” he said.

Ramaphosa’s view echoed criticism from People’s Vaccine Alliance, a collaboration between aid groups including Oxfam and Amnesty International.

The alliance said wealthier nations have bought up enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations nearly three times over by the end of 2021 if those currently in clinical trials are all approved for use.

“Updated data shows that rich nations representing just 14 per cent of the world’s population have bought up 53 per cent of all the most promising vaccines so far,” the People’s Vaccine Alliance said.

70 of the poorest countries, in comparison, will only be able to vaccinate one in ten people against COVID-19 this year.

What you are not told

On face value, Ramaphosa’s attack against countries which ordered more vaccines than what they need seems fair and even noble.

There is, however, far more to the vaccine acquisition process than what Ramaphosa or the People’s Vaccine Alliance are willing to say.

Speaking to Michael Avery on BusinessTech’s Business Talk, Sygnia founder and CEO Magda Wierzycka explained in June 2020, when the issue of vaccines came to the fore, there was not a single COVID-19 vaccine and there were no vaccines in development.

Wierzycka said in mid-2020 pharmaceutical giants and companies which specialise in vaccine developments only started to look at their own methodologies to create vaccines to see if they can amend them to create a COVID-19 vaccine.

It is, however, very expensive to develop and test vaccines, and this is where rich countries like the UK, the European Unions, and the United States stepped up to fund these developments.

They did not know which of the vaccine developments, if any, would be successful, and they subsequently funded numerous companies on a pre-order risk basis.

The rich countries therefore gave numerous vaccine developers money with the agreement that if they are successful, they will receive the vaccine first to vaccinate their citizens.

Developing countries do not have money to take big risks and they could therefore not fund the development of COVID-19 vaccines through pre-orders.

The good news is that many of the vaccine developers who were funded successfully produced vaccines, including AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech, and Moderna.

Because rich countries helped to fund all these companies to develop vaccines, they now have pre-ordered and pre-stocked vaccines from all these providers.

It may now appear that they are hoarding vaccines because of their existing pre-orders, but this is merely a result of the funding and negotiations which took place months ago.

Instead of painting rich countries as vaccine hoarders, they should be commended for generously funding vaccine developments even though there was no guarantee of success.

This funding made the development of COVID-19 vaccines possible, from which the rest of the world can now benefit.

It is every man for himself

Commenting on South Africa’s challenge to secure enough vaccine doses for its whole population, Wierzycka said this is not surprising.

She said because the pandemic is affecting every country the same, it was always going to be “every man for himself”.

“No-one is going to stand as a collective. This is what we are seeing,” Wierzycka said.

South Africa was slow to start negotiating with pharmaceutical companies to secure COVID-19 vaccines.

The Treasury revealed that the Department of Health only requested a deviation procurement processes on 6 January 2021 to start negotiation with four large vaccine producers.

This means South Africa’s struggle to secure vaccines is not a result of “vaccine nationalism”, but rather its lack of action when it was needed months ago.

News24 reported that Pfizer even attempted to contact South African health officials to offer them vaccines, but the health officials were allegedly “non-responsive”.

For Ramaphosa to now blame wealthy countries, which funded the development of vaccines, for hoarding vaccines and hurting poorer nations is disingenuous.

It would be far more productive to focus on procuring vaccines from multiple companies, especially those which hold the most promise protecting against the new COVID-19 variants.

Ramaphosa should also acknowledge that his government has bungled the process and involve the private sector to secure and roll out vaccines.

The good news is that it is not too late. Wierzycka said there is still the opportunity for South Africa to enter into quid-pro-quo negotiations with vaccine developers.

“We are late to the ordering game for existing vaccines, but it is not impossible to order the existing vaccines. It can even be done at reasonable pricing,” she said.

Wierzycka highlighted that South Africa has a great scientific community and is often used for clinical trials for new vaccines. This can be used to our advantage.

Magda Wierzycka interview

Now read: South Africa to get first million COVID-19 vaccines in February

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What Ramaphosa is not telling you about the COVID-19 vaccine