Vaccine inequality shows patent rules 'outdated': Africa trade boss

Secretary-general of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), Wamkele Mene, told AFP that the global intellectual property rights system was 'constraining' Africa's industrialisation.

Secretary-general of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), Wamkele Mene. Picture: @AfCFTA/Twitter

JOHANNESBURG - The head of the world's biggest free-trade area on Wednesday called for a review of "outdated" intellectual property rights to enable COVID-19 vaccine production on the severely under-immunised African continent.

Secretary-general of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), Wamkele Mene, told AFP that the global intellectual property rights system was "constraining" Africa's industrialisation.

"This pandemic has shown that the IP rights regime is outdated, particularly for Africa," he told AFP in Johannesburg.

"It is at the heart of the challenges that we are facing today."

He stressed the need "to upscale to the rest of the continent" the transfer of these new technologies.

"If we want to defeat these viruses, we have to re-look at all these questions of compulsory licensing, transfer of technology," he said.

He spoke after attending a conference on post-pandemic economic recovery and trade hosted in his home country.

Just over 4% of eligible Africans have been fully immunised against COVID-19, compared to more than 60% in rich nations.

South African and India are among the countries pushing for a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights to boost vaccine production in developing countries and address the vast inequity in access.

But there is fierce resistance from big pharma and their host countries, which insist patents are not the main roadblocks to scaling up production and warn the move could hamper innovation.

Touted as the world's largest single market in terms of the number of member countries, Africa's free trade zone came into operation on 1 January, bringing together more than 50 economies from Algeria to South Africa.

A brainchild of the African Union, AfCFTA has been signed by all AU states except Eritrea.

Forty countries have ratified the agreement, but progress in concretely rolling out trade has been hampered by the pandemic, Mene said.

So far only Ghana, Egypt and Kenya have revised their customs laws to allow free trade.

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