Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director-general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), says the inequity in accessing COVID-19 vaccines is unacceptable.
Okonjo-Iweala spoke after meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari on Monday, in New York. Buhari is in New York for the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA76).
Speaking to journalists after the meeting at Millennium Plaza, Manhattan, New York, Okonjo-Iweala said she briefed the president on efforts to mobilise COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers to Nigeria.
She expressed displeasure over the “lopsidedness” in COVID-19 vaccine distribution, saying even the vaccinated are unsafe where most of the population is not vaccinated.
“What we’re trying to say is that the inequity in access to vaccines is not acceptable. The fact that on the African continent, less than four percent of us have been vaccinated, whereas in the rich countries, you know, close to 50 percent have been vaccinated, is not something that really is good for the world,” she said.
“Why? Because we have all these variants that are circulating. And if you don’t vaccinate people, they will just migrate from the unvaccinated to the vaccinated.
“So, what we’re saying is, in order to solve this problem, we have to produce more vaccines. And then we have to distribute them equitably, to parts of the world that don’t have.
“At the WTO, what we’re doing is actually working directly with the manufacturers. We’re helping them monitor their supply chains, which are very complicated, to see what are the bottlenecks they have, what are the regulatory issues they face, how can we facilitate trade?
“In return, by asking them to deconcentrate production and go to those parts of the world where they can invest. For example, on the African continent, we don’t want to continue importing 99 percent of vaccines that we use, or 90 percent of our pharmaceuticals.
“So, they should invest, and I think it’s working. Pfizer announced $100 million investment in South Africa recently. We’re also looking at Nigeria. We’re the largest country and his excellency Mr. President, also wants to develop manufacturing. So, we want to support that.”
On the kind of support needed, she said government needs to be able to work well with the private sector for the investments to pull through.
“You know, vaccines are like a public good. So, they also need investment from the government to match part of what the private sector is doing. We need demand,” she said.
“Vaccine producers will not produce unless they know that the vaccines are going to be purchased. And, so you know, the fact that if Nigeria can aggregate demand, then that will help to persuade them to invest and I think the honorable minister of health is leading a taskforce of which I am a member.
“Investing in vaccines takes time. So, it’s not right away. In two to three years, hopefully, we will see the fruits of some of this.”