Pope Francis has repeatedly appealed that the Covid-19 vaccine be available to everyone. In fact, during his Christmas Urbi et Orbi discourse, he said, “In this time of darkness and uncertainty regarding the pandemic, various lights of hope appear, such as the discovery of vaccines. But for these lights to illuminate and bring hope to all, they need to be available to all.”

What exactly are the prospects for the availability of this vaccine in Africa? In an interview with Vatican News, Father Charles Chilufya explains the complications regarding the arrival of the Covid-19 vaccine in Africa. Father Chilufya is the Coordinator of the Africa Task Force of the Vatican Covid-19 Commission, and the Director of the Justice and Ecology Office of the Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar, also known as JCAM.


Several issues must be identified and dealt with both globally and locally in order to provide a successful Covid-19 vaccination program in Africa.

The first issue, Father Chilufya identifies is supply:

“Rich countries are already out-buying poorer countries.”

A second issue he names regards patents:

“In this time of urgency, patent laws may conflict with the equal provision of these medicines worldwide.”

International cooperation is also at issue:

“International organizations, in particular, the World Health Organization, have a crucial role in fostering an environment of international cooperation and enforcing equitable access to medicines on a global scale.”

But bureaucratic issues “predict a bleak future” regarding the Coronavirus vaccine, Father Chilufya states. However, he reminds us that medical care is a right defined in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is not a privilege for some, but it is a right for everyone, he emphasizes. Responsding to bureaucratic issues can be done through several international agreements so that patented, cost-prohibitive medicines can be made available to populations who cannot afford the high costs.

Providing generic alternatives

Father Chilufya explains that an agreement regulated by the World Trade Organization, called the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), also governs pharmaceutical and medical licenses. According to the World Health Organization, “the TRIPS Agreement allows the use of compulsory licenses. Compulsory licensing enables a competent government authority to license the use of a patented invention to a third party or government agency without the consent of the patent-holder.” Therefore, states can issue licenses for the development of bioequivalent, cheaper versions of medicines, often referred to as “generic” medicine. Most African countries rely on medicine produced in this way. It is specifically the World Health Organization who can ensure that these “possibilities in the international legal framework are available” regarding the Covid vaccine, Father says.

Even though legal frameworks may be in place, many countries in Africa lack the “adequate resources and infrastructure for the production of pharmaceutical products.” Such countries theoretically can make use of provision under the 2001 Doha Declaration that allows them to “import generic forms of medicines from countries with developing capacity,” Father Chilufya explains. Implementation has proved lacking, however, with this provision. Father cites Rwanda, the only African country that has used this scheme. However, the supplier abandoned the venture soon after it was initiated because not enough profit had been generated.

Source: Vatican News