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COVID’s Aftershocks: Africans scientists are bypassing vaccine patents

A roundup of the latest news, stats, and analysis of COVID-19’s impact in Africa. View our data tracker and sign up for our weekly newsletter. This week, we look at progress on a TRIPS waiver, a brewing global economic storm, efforts to create an African COVID vaccine, and more.

Top news

A slow TRIPS: draft TRIPS proposal for COVID vaccines is (finally) before the WTO, a leisurely 18 months after it was originally proposed. ⏳ Despite being heralded as an agreement between the EU, India, South Africa, and the US, only the EU has indicated support publicly. The proposal will now go to the WTO’s 164 members for consideration. It notably excludes important pandemic-fighting tools like therapeutics and diagnostics.

Resolve to save profits: Scientists in Egypt, Ghana, and Uganda are working around patent restrictions to develop their own COVID-19 vaccines. Intellectual property rights are a major barrier to vaccine production in Africa and a key driver of access inequality. Last week, Moderna’s shareholders voted against an Oxfam-led shareholder resolution to investigate the feasibility of a tech transfer of its COVID vaccine to low- and middle-income countries. The company reported $5.9 billion in COVID vaccine sales in the first quarter of 2022, compared to $1.7 billion a year ago.

World Power outage: China’s currency has fallen against the US dollar in recent weeks, hit hard by China’s COVID lockdowns, Russia’s war in Ukraine, and tighter US monetary policy. This is already impacting other countries: South Africa and Chile’s currencies have lost nearly all of this year’s gains. In the US, the highest inflation in over 30 years is leading to interest rate increases. US interest rate hikes have historically had an immediate and lasting negative impact on currency values and growth in emerging markets. Buckle up.

Trouble brewing: COVID-19 is evolving “at a fairly rapid rate,” and leading experts are warning of a renewed risk of deadlier variants. Eyes are on South Africa as a potential sign of what’s to come, as two Omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5, appear to evade natural immunity from the original Omicron variant. Antibodies are up to three times less effective against the newest Omicron sublineage strain, and it’s 25% more contagious. Still, vaccines continue to protect against severe infection. A good reminder that vaccines are a must-have against a virus now more contagious than measles.

Of virus and men: Climate change could increase the likelihood of new virus outbreaks. Research shows that 2°C of warming would mean the migration of over 3,000 mammal species, likely resulting in novel virus outbreaks across equatorial Africa, India, South China, and Southeast Asia. Bill Gates is calling for the creation of a global pandemic surveillance team to monitor future disease threats, at a cost of $1 billion per year. Meanwhile, cases of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles, polio, and yellow fever are increasing across Africa, and Ebola has resurfaced in the DRC. Big yikes.

Pipeline dream: Paradoxically, South Africa’s long-term plan for self-reliance is being undermined by the consequences of unequal vaccine access options. Local production risks being canceled as costs are too high and demand too low for J&J doses. Importantly, this comes after J&J manufacturing in South Africa overwhelmingly favored exports to Europe, forcing African countries to find supply elsewhere.

Cookin’ with gas: Africa soon may be the EU’s leading gas supplier. Germany announced it is ready to immediately give up Russian oil along with the rest of the EU. This could mean tapping into currently unused liquefied natural gas (LNG) supplies in Nigeria, Senegal, and Angola. The EU’s shift away from Russia also includes imports from Azerbaijan, Egypt, Israel, Japan, Qatar, South Korea, and the US. Continued reliance on LNG is bad news for the planet given the IPCC’s three year warning for capping global emissions.

Fertilizer for thought: The war in Ukraine continues to drastically impact fertilizer supplies, which could result in huge reductions in crop yields. Rice and corn harvests in West Africa are expected to be down by one-third, and Brazil is facing a 14% harvest decline. This adds to the heightened food insecurity triggered by the war’s disruption of global wheat, corn, and cooking oil supplies — all of which has increased the World Food Programme’s costs by 44%. Droughts in the Horn of Africa could push 20 million into hunger. Ethiopia’s worst drought in 40 years continues to cause a sharp increase in acute malnutrition. One hospital in Gode admitted nearly as many malnourished children this month as in all of 2021. The US will chair a UN Security Council meeting on 19 May to discuss a global response to the food crisis.

Wage woes: Kenya’s minimum wage has increased by 12% after three years of campaigning by trade unions. It’s a win overall — but it’s only half of the 24% that campaigners wanted. A seven-month high in inflation is hitting livelihoods hard, which President Kenyatta has attributed to COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Tanzanian civil servants’ six-year wait for a pay rise may soon be over: President Samia committed to a wage increase in her May Day speech.

The numbers

  • 39.3%: South Africa’s projected unemployment rate in 2030, up from 35.3% today. The country has the world’s highest overall and youth unemployment rates.
  • $26 billion: Pfizer’s revenues for the first quarter of 2022. 👀
  • 1 in 4: the number of people in Africa suffering from hunger.

More reads

  • Whoever wins Kenya’s presidential election in August will have to immediately manage the country’s skyrocketing debt and growing food insecurity. Rasna Warah explores.
  • ONE’s David McNair breaks down the emerging debate about reforming the Bretton Woods institutions.
  • What a malaria vaccine would mean for the world. (Financial Times)
  • The Tony Blair Institute lays out the challenges with vaccine rollouts in Africa. (Tony Blair Institute)
  • The symptoms and complications of ”long COVID.” (The Economist)
  • Nigeria turns to Canada for emergency fertilizer ingredients. (Financial Post)
  • Tensions rise between two leading African multilateral banks over limited SDRs. (The Africa Report)
  • Xenophobia in South Africa is deadly, but for most Zimbabweans, going home is worse. (The News Hawks)
  • Zambian kids return to school under strict measures after lengthy COVID-19 closures. (The Herald)
  • Major tech firms are setting up shop in Africa’s “Silicon Savannah.” (CIO Africa)
  • Mali’s military government breaks accords with France. (Reuters)

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