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A global shortage of the chemicals needed to test for the new coronavirus is crippling South Africa’s COVID-19 testing campaign and leading to huge backlogs. But what if we could produce these reagents right here at home?


COMMENT

The saying of not letting a good crisis go to waste has never been more appropriate.

COVID-19 presents African states with an opportunity to collaboratively find solutions and build capacity based on strong solidarity while much of the world turns inward.

Unfortunately, the new coronavirus has brought with it greed, selfishness and nationalism.

For instance, recently when a COVID-19 experimental vaccine showed promise in India, CEO of one of the world’s largest vaccine producers, Serum Institutes of India Cyrus Poonawalla spoke to Reuters about possible future production.

“A majority of the vaccine, at least initially,” quipped Poonawalla, “would have to go to our countrymen before it goes abroad.”

Today, many international patent systems allow monopolies to continue within the pharmaceutical industry globally. Exclusive licensing, under which only a designated firm may produce a medicine, forces governments and even international agencies to rely on a single manufacturer for vital equipment needed to fight COVID-19.

Without competition in the market for goods or medicines, prices can soar.

Will promising COVID-19 treatments ever really make it to the Global South at prices we can afford?

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and others, for example, recently blocked an attempt by drug company Gilead to extended monopoly control over the 20-year patents it has filed for in more than 70 countries for its potential COVID-19 treatment candidate, remdesivir.

However, Gilead has yet to commit to not enforcing its patents globally. Monopolies on medical equipment and drugs slow down the speed at which countries can access the tools they need to tackle COVID-19.

Richer countries are now hoarding essential medical supplies at the expense of the Global South. As of mid-April, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration was considering banning foreign countries from using US aid to buy scarce protective gear such as masks and gloves in order to allegedly allow the US to procure these items instead.  

South Africa’s patent system has been historically weak, paving the way for abuses and reforms to combat this have stalled. The country should urgently take a stand now against monopoly protections on vital life-saving medicines, tests and medical devices to allow more manufacturers to produce them in order to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic response.

One way to achieve this is by using existing mechanisms such as compulsory licensing.  Compulsory licensing allows the state to override patents without the consent of the patent holder to ensure the production of more affordable medical products from other manufacturers. The civil society coalition, Fix The Patent Laws Coalition has been calling for South Africa’s patent law to allow for the use of such mechanisms for almost 10 years.  

South African vaccine makers are already gearing up to respond to the coronavirus outbreak

Globally, countries are battling shortages of testing kits, face masks and ventilators amid the pandemic. Countries need to progressively seek solutions locally, building on internal strengths and explore local production as opposed to relying on stifled global supply chains.

We are already seeing encouraging developments on the African continent. South African Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology Blade Nzimande revealed last month that his department was discussing with the non-profit Centre of Excellence for Biomedical TB Research and South African vaccine manufacturers Biovac and Afrigen Bio whether facilities could be reconfigured to start locally producing reagents needed for COVID-19 tests, in order to overcome shortages and an overreliance on imports. 

In Kenya, students at the Kenyatta University are scaling up local production of ventilators, while the Dedan Kimathi University of Technology is producing personal protective equipment such as body suits and face masks. Closer to home, University of Witwatersrand engineering students are producing nearly 500 face shields daily to help meet the growing demand among medical staff here.

We think international corporations can show solidarity practically by creating open source, non-patented models and blueprints of mechanical devices and medical products, so that local manufacturers can also produce these to meet demands.

This approach of domestic repurposing and ramping up production is essential in the face of possible rising stock-outs of essential supplies such as personal protective equipment, ventilators and even medicines needed to treat conditions other than COVID-19.

Patents and pandemics

Much hope has been placed on a future vaccine against COVID-19. However, pharmaceutical corporations Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi confirmed their respective capacities to produce 900 and 600 million doses by 2021, depending on vaccine trial outcomes.

That would only cover just over one in every seven people worldwide among the world’s population of 7.7-billion, according to United Nations statistics.  

In the interest of public health, these international corporations must waive patents on potential new COVID-19 vaccines in the future to allow local manufacturing in the Global South.

Countries such as Malawi and Zimbabwe with weaker health systems were already struggling before COVID-19. Without enough medical supplies and equipment, the threat of the new coronavirus is all too real.

In Malawi, The Guardian has revealed that only 20 people per day can be tested for the virus. There are just 25 intensive care unit beds and 17 ventilators in a country of more than 18-million people. In Zimbabwe and Mozambique, testing capacity is equally low due to shortages of functional test kits.  

There is no better time for South Africa to review its catalytic role on the continent than right now.

South Africa can’t go it alone

South Africa has already redirected funds toward improving manufacturing capacities for local producers such as Biovac in anticipation of future COVID-19 treatment and vaccine, the department of science and innovation recently announced.

South Africa should use its economy and diverse industries to lead the way for home-grown solutions, stimulating innovation and production for the public good. Efforts like these should be coordinated in the region to ensure that our neighbours also benefit from the country’s production capacity.

Perhaps one of  the most concrete initiatives yet — supported through public and philanthropic funding — is that by Senegalese researchers to develop a 10-minute rapid test for COVID-19.

It is important that public and philanthropic funding of research and development for new COVID-19 tests and treatments include requirements that guarantee affordability and equitable access for all who are in need of products once they are available.

Governments and multinational corporations globally need to take on the shared responsibility of ensuring that all countries have access to essential lifesaving medical supplies. Without this, our efforts to limiting the spread of the COVID-19 will be stymied and this virus will persist for years to come, especially in low-resource settings.  

Now is the most critical time for cross-border, regional, continental and global collaborations to effectively fight COVID-19.

Candice Sehoma is the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Access Campaign Advocacy officer in South Africa. Follow her on Twitter @CandisiweS.