The head of the World Trade Organization said on Thursday that it was of the utmost importance to diversify vaccine manufacturing and increase production in Africa and Latin America to contain the pandemic.
On the eve of a world health summit in Rome, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told European Union lawmakers that normal market forces for exports and imports cannot not apply to the issue of life or death from COVID-19 vaccines, as many of the world’s wealthiest nations were racking up the shots for their own people when the crisis hit their own territory.
She said the world has the capacity to make some 5 billion doses of vaccine in total, but as the virus has spread, “we need two and three times as much. So the capacity was not there.
One of the main challenges is the diversification of vaccine production, which is now 80% concentrated in 10 countries in Europe, North America and South Asia, Okonjo-Iweala said, calling the situation problem that “came home to roost”.
“It is not normal that Africa, with 1.3 billion inhabitants, has 0.17% of the world’s production capacity,” she said. “So that has to change.” She added that Latin America has about 2% of the world’s production capacity.
The summit scheduled for Friday, co-organized by the executive arm of the European Union and Italy, is expected to bring together the Group of 20 industrial countries and emerging markets, heads of international organizations and representatives of global health organizations.
The European Union is set to raise many of the same points made by Okonjo-Iweala, specifically seeking to increase manufacturing output in Africa.
EU countries have criticized the US call to waive patents on the COVID-19 vaccine in order to increase supplies, arguing that the move would result in no short-term or intermediate improvements and may even have a negative impact.
Okonjo-Iweala has sought to remain neutral on the issue, but said WTO members could find flexibility to ensure more vaccines are produced in developing countries.