The sixth European Union – African Union summit took place last week in Brussels on February 17-18. The summit covered a broad array of topics including access to vaccines. It followed an event on vaccine equity in Africa hosted by BioNTech and the kENUP Foundation on the 16th which announced the schedule for shipping facilities to several African countries to produce mRNA vaccines in the second half of 2022.
The Summit was an effort to have the two Unions form a new partnership, and for the EU to be the partner of choice for countries in Africa. The joint declaration from the summit is included below and reviews the broad areas of discussion and agreed actions to be taken by the two Unions following the Summit.
The discussion of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing discussion on the WTO’s consideration of a response to the pandemic (both trade and intellectual property) was one of the important issues at the summit. The joint declaration discussion of the issue is copied below.
“The immediate challenge is to ensure a fair and equitable access to vaccines. Together we will support local and regional mechanisms for procurement, as well as allocation and deployment of medical products. The EU reaffirms its commitment to provide at least 450 million of vaccine doses to Africa, in coordination with the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT) platform, by mid-2022. Contributing to this and complementing the actions of the AVATT, Team Europe has provided more than USD 3 billion (i.e. the equivalent of 400 million vaccine doses) to the Covax Facility and to vaccination on the African continent.
“Team Europe will mobilise EUR 425 million to ramp up the pace of vaccination, and in coordination with the Africa CDC, to support the efficient distribution of doses and the training of medical teams and the capacity of analysis and sequencing. We will also contribute in this context to the fight against health-related disinformation.
“Learning from the current health crisis, we are committed to supporting the full-fledged African health sovereignty, in order for the continent to respond to future public health emergencies. To this end, we support a common agenda for manufacturing vaccines, medicines, diagnostics, therapeutics and health products in Africa, including investment in production capacities, voluntary technology transfers as well as strengthening of the regulatory framework to enable equitable access to vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics.
“The African Union and the European Union underlined the urgency of the WTOs contribution to the fight against the pandemic and to the recovery of the global economy, and commit to engage constructively towards an agreement on a comprehensive WTO response to the pandemic, which includes trade related, as well as intellectual property related aspects.”
The European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen statement at the press conference on February 18 provided the timeline for reaching agreement with the African Union on the WTO response package to the COVID-19 pandemic, including finding an acceptable path forward on intellectual property. The EU and AU will be meeting in the Spring to find a mutually acceptable solution. President von der Leyen’s comments at the press conference on this topic are copied below.
“And finally, from the health of our planet, to the health of our people. Europe is Africa’s number one partner in the fight against COVID-19. And we will do even more. We are on the right track to reach our goal to share at least 450 million vaccine doses by this summer. And indeed, together, we are building up mRNA manufacturing capacity across Africa. I will not go in detail because we have discussed that in the press conference this morning.
“But important is that we had a very good, intense, constructive discussion on the question of TRIPS waiver and compulsory licencing. We share the same goal. We have different ways to reach that goal. There must be a bridge between those two ways. And therefore, we have decided that the two Commissions – the African Union Commission and the European Union Commission – will work together. We will organise a College-to-College meeting here in Brussels, in spring. And at that time, at the latest, we have to deliver a solution. This will be accompanied by the WTO, Director-General Ngozi. And therefore, I always like it when a task is clear and defined. The task is set for the two Commissions. The frame is clear, the goal is clear, we have to deliver.”
Statement by President von der Leyen at the joint press conference following the 6th European Union-African Union Summit, Brussels.
The European Union has been working for most of the last year on moving towards significant vaccine production capacity being built in Africa. President von der Leyen’s statements at the start of the EU-AU Summit and her statement at the Vaccine Equity for Africa event on February 16 provide significant detail on actions the EU is taking to help Africa develop vaccine manufacturing capacity as well as address the build up of health care infrastructure on the continent.
Parts of the February 16 speech are copied below.
“This year already, at least two of these container factories will move to Africa. To Rwanda and to Senegal, where I visited last week the Institut Pasteur de Dakar. Close cooperation is ongoing with South Africa’s Biovac Institute. And with our partners in Ghana. We are advancing in record time. Commercial production is set to begin in 2023.
“The ‘Vaccine Equity for Africa’ project is only possible thanks to teamwork. Starting with Africa’s declared ambition to build its own vaccine production capacity. Teaming up with a European innovation champion such as BioNTech. Supported by the European Union and the African Union. Governments in Europe and Africa. And the UN system. This is how we emerge from the pandemic and build a stronger future for Africa and Europe.
“The initiative is first and foremost about vaccine equity. Vaccines from the new factories will be sold at not- for-profit prices, exclusively to African countries. They will be made in Africa, for Africa, with world-class technology.
“At the same time, this initiative can advance public health and industry, well beyond the pandemic. We know the mRNA technology is revolutionary. It holds promises for the fight against other diseases, like malaria and tuberculosis. BioNTech factories can be adjusted within weeks to make different vaccines. It could thus be an African-made solution to diseases that currently kill millions.
“This project is part of a larger ambition. By 2040, the African Union wants that 60% of the vaccines used on the continent are manufactured on the continent. The European Union fully supports that goal. Together with our Member States and financial institutions, we have committed over one billion euros in financing. To strengthen regulatory frameworks, and transfer skills and know-how. Because regional capacities are the cornerstone of global public health.
“And the project goes even beyond public health. Building this technological capacity in Ghana, Rwanda, Senegal and South Africa – countries that are regional leaders in innovation – will strengthen the innovation ecosystem on the entire continent.”
Documents from the European Council and European Commission at the conclusion of the Summit provide the EU’s view of the healthcare portion of the summit and EU actions.
(“In the margins of the European Union-African Union Summit, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced the first six countries that will receive the technology needed for the production of mRNA vaccines on the African continent. Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia all applied and have been selected as recipients. The announcement was made at a ceremony hosted by the European Council, France, South Africa and the WHO in the presence of the following leaders: Charles Michel, President of the European Council, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. President Macron, President Ramaphosa, President Sall, President Kenyatta, President Buhari, President Saïed and President al-Sisi.”);
While vaccines and health issues were just one of a number of important topics reviewed during the Summit, it has been the focus of this post simply because the outcome and promised meeting in the Spring between the two Unions offers the hope of a resolution to the WTO’s ongoing negotiations on a pandemic response package — one that covers various trade actions as well as what, if any, actions are needed on intellectual property rights during a pandemic. While the member states of the EU and the AU are not the only parties with strong positions in the ongoing discussions at the WTO, it would seem likely that if the EU and AU are able to reach agreement on a package that will likely form the basis of a final resolution in Geneva.
With the WTO apparently discussing dates in June 2022 for rescheduling the 12th Ministerial Conference, the ability of the EU and AU countries to find a mutually agreeable solution to the intellectual property component of the pandemic response package could permit an agreed package to be accepted by WTO Members at the Ministerial Conference. The announcement last week of the Spring effort to reach agreement may also help facilitate movement on fisheries subsidies at the WTO — a negotiation that has been ongoing for more than 20 years.
In short, the EU-AU Summit while covering a lot of ground on issues of importance to both Unions may also have created a path to forward movement at the WTO on the response to the pandemic and more ahead of the 12th Ministerial Conference.
Actions by the US, EU, Quad (US, Japan, India, Australia), China and others should ensure that there are more than adequate vaccines available in 2022 to vaccinate all countries against COVID-19. Efforts by the WHO, GAVI, the U.S., EU and others are also likely to significantly increase the ability of countries in Africa to vaccinate their populations. Thus, the real benefit of resolving the WTO pandemic response at the 12th Ministerial will not be responding to COVID-19 but rather adopting rules and policies that will make the world more responsive to future pandemics.
We wish the EU and AU well in their upcoming negotiations.
Terence Stewart, former Managing Partner, Law Offices of Stewart and Stewart, and author of the blog, Current Thoughts on Trade.
To read the full commentary from Current Thoughts on Trade, please click here.