Labour must support the drive to help Africa produce its own vaccines

Labour could show its committment to global social justice by supporting Africa's drive to produce its own vaccines.

Adebusuyi Adeyemi is chair of Young Fabians Health Network, an MBA student at HULT International Business School, and works for a healthcare policy and public affairs consultancy

“What are the lines then, Jim?”.

One can imagine Ed Miliband asking MP Jim Murphy, the new shadow secretary of state for International Development, this question.

Sitting in one of Parliaments’ gilded, judge-like thrones, Ed might be expecting ideas to address the failure of British banks to comply with money laundering-prevention laws. Or maybe an attempt to put Jim Murphy’s fingerprints on the Ivan Lewis/Tessa Jowell campaign to invest in early childhood?

What could his bold and radical idea be?

How about investigating why African states don’t appear to grapple with their health problems more directly and provide more of their own vaccines?

Let us just note – to begin with – that there are a number of domestic programmes and native providers of vaccines in Africa. However, taking a broad economic look at the problem, a more Labour-inspired approach could be sourced; one that signals a 2015 Labour government as bold and globally leading on the values of social justice.

The past 20 years have seen a massive redistribution of economic power to the emerging world and, thanks to an increase of generic medicines and globalisation in general, it is arguable that we don’t have to be so protectionist of our pharmaceutical industry anymore.

The notion of ‘International Development’ is a multifaceted and inherently complex concept, which varies according to the specific country conditions and the donor governments one is referring to. The notion of ‘International Development’, particularly when it comes to donating vaccines to Africa, could do with an injection of boldness and new ideas.

Handing out the leftovers of a pharmaceutical companies’ drug portfolio is not enough – by a long stretch.

Some are waking up to realise that the western-donated-vaccine model, with vaccines that aren’t originally designed for Africans countries and that cost too much, is not sustainable. Working on the frontline in some of the more resource-poor African states, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) argues that vaccines from the Western taxpayer’s purse cost too much and are not designed for the needs of hot countries like Africa.

Dr Manica Balasegaram, executive director of MSF’s vaccine-access campaign, says:

“It [donated vaccines] looks to us like a big subsidy for pharma – there is no other way of saying it really.”

With the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report ranking 13 sub-Saharan African economies among the top 100 in the world [2012], African leaders are seeing that their macroeconomic policy and fiscal reforms are working.

Yet when it comes to closing the financing gap for vaccine programs, a number of governments have not been innovative or brave enough.

African leaders can and should follow through to bring reforms to their healthcare markets. The time is right for this to start changing; and if a Labour government doesn’t guide this change, the Chinese government will and will reap the rewards.

Currently, the foreign Advance Market Commitment (AMC- a global vaccine funding mechanism) gives drug companies an incentive to offer vaccines. The ideological argument that was once put forward was that with time, as African becomes more prosperous through a healthier work-force, local markets will be able to compete.

Ideas such as the one that birthed the AMC are laudable; for while donations and the motivation vaccine funds embody are extremely humane, issues of absolute country ownership and long-term sustainability still exist.

In closing, there are two important things to consider.

Firstly, there is a growing African middle-class that is driving demand and organically creating market capacity and opportunity for a different response to donated vaccine programmes. Secondly, Gambia’s departure from the Commonwealth may or may not be the start of a trend.

From his gilded seat, Miliband could eye the opportunity to take on the global leader status his old teacher Gordon Brown benefited from.

By proposing something truly progressive and economically forward-thinking, along the lines of true development (i.e. Africa producing its own vaccines), Labour could also win over those to the right (limiting foreign aid) and ensure the BME vote isn’t truly neglected.

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