Uganda is currently experiencing a new spike of COVID-19 infections, which is enough cause for worry.
While we appeal to the global community, empathy, solidarity and humanity in accessibility and importation of the Covid-19 Vaccine, we need to appreciate that this infectious and ominous disease is on the rise and therefore ministry of Health Guidelines and Standard Operating Procedures should be followed and enforced at all times.
Close to a year now Uganda has been battling COVID-19; there are slightly over 40,000 (forty thousand) confirmed cases and slightly over 300 deaths and to date there is no confirmed COVID-19 treatment.
Uganda is at the stage of clinical trial of a natural chemotherapeutic product coded UBV_01N, which is anticipated to have antiviral, anti-inflammatory and immunological abilities that are much needed in the treatment and management of COVID-19.
Although the great strides Uganda is making are worth mentioning, it’s important to note that many Ugandans are still not certain when they will be taking their jabs of COVID-19 vaccine.
The ministry has come up to assert with hesitation of certitude that by March 2021, Uganda may receive 35 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines.
According to Dr Diana Atwine, the Permanent Secretary Ministry of Health, Uganda will access the COVID-19 vaccine through the COVID-19 Global Vaccine access facility (COVAX facility).
COVAX is a company led by Gavi and WHO that aims to accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccine and it also guarantees fair and equitable access for every country in the world.
COVAX Facility also uses the collective purchasing power to negotiate competitive prices from manufacturers.
Uganda submitted a COVAX application in December 2021, under the COVAX facility where we shall be able to access approximately nine million doses of the vaccine to cover 20% of the population.
The ministry of health has come up to clarify that the first dozes to come will be for the benefit of front line health workers, the elderly and the security operatives.
The COVID-19 pandemic is also raging on in Europe, USA and new strains of COVID-19 have been reported in South Africa.
These countries are working feverishly to vaccinate at least 70% of the population, which is needed to achieve effective herd immunity and enable people to return to normal social and economic life.
This Panic has prompted the decision to grab all available COVID -19 vaccines including doses to be produced in future.
For example, a recent highly publicized call requires vaccine manufactures not to export any vaccine without permission from political leaders.
This whole trajectory has led to a new terminology in access to medicine called ‘Vaccine Nationalism ‘that means that rich countries will have access to the vaccines while restricting export to poor and developing countries. The Vaccine nationalism could leave the Covax initiative aimed at getting Vaccines to low income countries like Uganda facing a huge dosage shortfall for several years to come.
There is an epidemiological argument which provides that a virus anywhere in the World whether in one of the least developed countries is a threat to all countries and no country is safe until all countries are safe and this can be corroborated with the first confirmation of the COVID-19 case in Wuhan China and countries seemed to believe it was a china affair but hardly a year the whole world has had a share.
Medical – Legal Context
Essential medicine that includes Vaccines is defined by WHO as those medicine that satisfy the priority health care needs of the population, access to essential medicine is an essential component of the right to Health.
The UN commission on Human rights has also pointed out that access to medication in the context of pandemics such as COVID-19 is one fundamental element in progressive realization of the right to Health.
Before the discovery of the COVID-19 vaccine world leaders were in support of the declaration that COVID-19 vaccine is a global public good.
However, today we witness a potential or possible vaccine apartheid that is only serving the interests of powerful and profitable Pharmaceutical Corporation.
Access to Vaccine such as COVID -19 Vaccines is highly compromised by high prices charged by Pharmaceutical Corporations that are protected by Pharmaceutical Patents provided in the Trade related aspects of Intellectual Property (Trips) Agreement.
The Trips agreement provides for minimum standards that relate to the protection of intellectual Property rights and these minimum standards are binding on all the World trade Organization members including Uganda. The TRIPS agreement protects Process Patents which are concerned with the protection of methods of Manufacturing and Product Patents which relate to the protection of Pharmaceutical Products.
Patent Protection has been justified on grounds that it acts as an incentive for drug Innovation, research and Technological development of new drugs.
It’s further urged that Patent Holders need to recover the time and financial resources invested in the research and Development of the drug.
However there has been an argument by civil Society organizations that Patents increase prices and Limit access to Medicines by placing them beyond the reach of most people in least developed countries such as Uganda.
There are apparent conflicts between the intellectual Property rights regime embodied in the Trips agreement, on the one hand and international Human rights law on the other hand
There is no doubt that Patents play a big role in the development of new medicine/Vaccine.
However, patent monopolies have a deleterious impact on the price of the medicines. The Un Human rights council has also come up to reecho the same that Patentability creates a monopoly market in the product which eliminates competition hence maintaining high prices. Thus Patent protection hinders access to medicines in poor countries such as Uganda
Taking a look at South Africa a country whose history in HIV/AIDS has taught us all the most appalling life costing consequences of allowing Pharmaceutical Corporations to protect their medicine monopolies.
South Africans had to pay more than double the price paid by European Union for AstraZeneca vaccine for COVID-19.
Unjustifiable high prices block access and threaten to push more countries into an ever deeper debt crisis if we continue to pursue the vaccine model we have, we will fail to get this pandemic under control for years to come.
Failure to change course will come at the cost of millions of lives and livelihoods around the world.
The vaccine in equality will not be confirmed to those living in the poorer countries but also in the rich countries.
When the assertion of intellectual property rights by their holders impact on the human rights of the consumer, in particular their rights to access health care and health products like medicine, paradoxically the pharmaceutical companies that hold proprietary interests in medicine also claim human rights to their medical discoveries.
They often argue that the ecology of research and developments on medicine is linked to the possession of exclusive rights in the form of patents and date protection.
The proprietary interests of pharmaceutical companies are urgently pursued and enforced by global powers via their trade policy that developed countries enter into with developing countries.
It’s my argument that human rights should prevail over those proprietary interest for a number of reasons.
There has been all over the world competing paradigms of the rights to health versus intellectual property.
This shows how the human rights regime has achieved superiority in theory but inferiority in practice .
Almost every business on the planet has had to step away from business as usual, as a result of the pandemic.
It’s all in our interest that these pharmaceutical corporations now do the same; government and other business leaders should join the growing call for people’s vaccine and together chart a new path that can secure enough vaccines, tests and treatments for all people in all nations.
Uganda should support the proposal tabled to the world trade organizations to temporarily waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines , treatment and tests until the world has reached the critically needed herd immunity and the pandemic is under control
Uganda must mount an effective response now and prepare for future pandemics by developing internal capacity to develop, manufacture and distribute vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics within the continent and in partnership with the rest of the world.
We applaud and appreciate the fact that we joined COVAX but we should not only be a beneficiary to the facility but contributor of the best science.
Uganda should also allow private players to import the vaccine following the National Drug Authority (NDA) guidelines of vaccines that address the quality, safety and efficacy of imported drugs. This will enable Ugandans with capacity to buy their own vaccines, hence enabling us to reach the Herd Immunity before more damage is caused to the economy and more lives are lost.
Before I take leave of the matter I will appreciate the Working Papers and Publications of my Lecturers , Prof Ben Twinomugisha of Makerere University and Prof Yousuf Abdoola Vawda of University of Kwazulu Natal Durban, whose Publications and Working papers I have heavily relied on in my article/Opinion.
The Author is
Dentist/Advocate- High Court of Uganda
Medical legal and Reproductive Health Consultant_ Enforcement of Patients and Health workers’ Rights (EPHWOR).
Partner- Mubiru & Aruho Associated Advocates.
Member- Health and law Cluster Uganda Law Society.