President Cyril Ramaphosa on Tuesday asked the World Trade Organization to suspend intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines to bridge the huge gap in vaccination rates worldwide.
India and South Africa last year brought forward the intellectual property waiver proposal before the WTO but there has been no consensus.
Proponents argue the temporary removal of IP rights will boost production in developing countries and address the dramatic inequity in access.
But there is fierce opposition from pharmaceutical giants and their host countries, which insist patents are not the main roadblocks to scaling up production and warn the move could hamper innovation.
“The world is at this moment experiencing the debilitating effects of inequality in the patterns of global production,” Ramaphosa told a WTO round table by video link on the pandemic and trade-related issues.
“It is said that less than three percent of adults are fully vaccinated in most low income countries, compared to almost 60 percent in high income countries. This gross inequality is both unjust and counterproductive,” said Ramaphosa, whose country is the worst hit by coronavirus in Africa both in terms of infections and deaths.
“Passing a time-bound targeted TRIPS waiver as proposed by South Africa and India — and now supported by many countries around the world — is urgent if we are to save millions of lives.”
TRIPS is a comprehensive WTO agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights which is used to resolve trade disputes over IP.
Pressure is mounting for an accord ahead of the 12th ministerial conference of the WTO, which runs from November 30 to December 3 in Geneva.
WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said the yawning chasm in vaccination rates between the haves and the have nots was “devastating for the lives and livelihoods of Africans” and “morally unacceptable”.
She added: “That is why it is so important to deliver results at the WTO in the weeks remaining before our 12 ministerial conference.”