For close to a year, Uganda has been battling Covid-19. There are slightly more than 40,000 confirmed cases and slightly over 300 deaths. There is no confirmed Covid-19 treatment. Uganda is at the stage of a clinical trial of a natural chemotherapeutic product coded UBV-01N.
This product is anticipated to have antiviral, anti-inflammatory and immunological abilities that are much needed in the treatment and management of Covid-19. However, many Ugandans are still not certain when they will be taking their jabs of the Covid-19 vaccine.
The ministry has come up to assert with hesitation of certitude that by March 2021, Uganda may receive 35 million doses of covid-19 vaccine. According to Dr Diana Atwine, the permanent secretary in the ministry of Health, Uganda will access the covid-19 vaccine through the covid-19 Global Vaccine Access facility (COVAX).
COVAX is a company led by Gavi and WHO that aims to accelerate the development and manufacture of Covid-19 vaccine. It also guarantees fair and equitable access for every country in the world. COVAX also uses the collective purchasing power to negotiate competitive prices from manufacturers. U
ganda submitted a COVAX application in December 2020 to access approximately nine million doses of the vaccine to cover 20 per cent of the population. The ministry of Health has come up to clarify that the first doses will be for frontline health workers, the elderly and the security operatives.
The Covid-19 pandemic is still raging in Europe and USA. These countries are working feverishly to vaccinate at least 70 per cent of the population, which is needed to achieve effective herd immunity and enable people to return to normal social and economic life.
This panic has prompted the decision to grab all available Covid-19 vaccines including doses to be produced in future. Essential medicine that includes vaccines is defined by WHO as those medicines that satisfy the priority health care needs of the population. Access to essential medicine is a critical component of the right to health.
The UN Commission on Human Rights has also pointed out that access to medication in the context of pandemics such as Covid-19 is one fundamental element in progressive realization of the right to health. Before the discovery of the Covid-19 vaccine, world leaders were in support of the declaration that the vaccine is a global public good.
However, today we witness a potential or possible vaccines apartheid that only serves the interests of powerful and profitable pharmaceutical corporations. Access to vaccines such as those against Covid-19 is highly compromised by high prices charged by pharmaceutical corporations that are protected by pharmaceutical patents provided in the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (Trips) Agreement.
The Trips agreement provides for minimum standards that relate to the protection of intellectual property rights and these minimum standards are binding on all the World Trade Organization members, including Uganda. Patent protection has been justified on grounds that it acts as an incentive for drug innovation, research and technological development of new drugs.
It’s further argued that patent holders need to recover the time and financial resources invested in the research and development of the drug. However, there has been an argument by civil society organizations that patents increase prices and limit access to medicines by placing them beyond the reach of most people in least developed countries such as Uganda.
There are apparent conflicts between the intellectual property rights regime embodied in the Trips agreement, on the one hand, and international human rights law, on the other. There is no doubt that patents play a big role in the development of new medicine.
However, patent monopolies have a deleterious impact on the price of the medicines. The UN Human Rights Council has also come up to reiterate that patentability creates a monopoly market in the product, which eliminates competition, hence maintaining high prices.
Thus, patent protection hinders access to medicines in poor countries such as Uganda. Take a look at South Africa, which had to pay more than double the price paid by European Union for AstraZeneca vaccine for Covid-19. Unjustifiable high prices block access and threaten to push more countries into an ever-deeper debt crisis.
If we continue to pursue the vaccine model we have, we will fail to get this pandemic under control for years to come. Pharmaceutical companies that hold proprietary interests in medicine also claim human rights to their medical discoveries.
They often argue that the ecology of research and developments on medicine is linked to the possession of exclusive rights in the form of patents and date protection. The proprietary interest of pharmaceutical companies is urgently pursued and enforced by global powers via their trade policies with developing countries.
Human rights should prevail over those proprietary interests. Almost every business on the planet has had to step away from business as usual as a result of the pandemic. It’s in our interest that these pharmaceutical corporations now do the same.
Government and other business leaders should join the growing call for people’s vaccine and together chart a new path that can secure enough vaccines for everyone.
The writer is a dentist and advocate of the High court of Uganda.