A University of Cape Town professor says if the intellectual property (IP) rights of vaccines are lifted, the African continent will still not be able to scale up the production of Covid-19 vaccines.
Countries and activists in the Global South have been asking pharmaceutical companies to waive IP rights on the Covid-19 vaccine for more equitable access.
On Tuesday, Kelly Chibale, a professor of organic chemistry and founder of the integrated drug discovery and development centre H3D, said IP was necessary because it was an enabler of innovation.
"First of all, when people talk about IP rights they are not just rights but also responsibility. If you file a patent on something, you have a responsibility to move that innovation. People need to have the know-how and means to move that innovation.
"Why is IP necessary? IP is actually an enabler. Something went into that innovation, someone paid cash [for it]. It really helps to create strong innovation systems. It provides incentives."
Chibale said even if the IPs were waived immediately, the African continent would still not have the capacity to manufacture the vaccines for a fast rollout.
"Even if the IP was waived, I guarantee to you that it would mean nothing. How are we going to do it? We don't have the facilities to do this at scale. We don't have the expertise, the knowledge, the infrastructure. People need to balance the IP issue with reality."
He added there were only about 10 African manufacturers that have the capability to produce vaccines. They are based in only five countries - Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia - and mostly fill and package the vaccines.
"How can the whole continent have less than 10 countries that can manufacture vaccines for different diseases? We have to address that. The challenge is that as long as you are not doing your own manufacturing, access is going to be a challenge.
"If we can manufacture the vaccines in South Africa, it brings efficiency in terms of access."
Chibale said by manufacturing locally, governments were able to prioritise their citizens.
He gave an example of how India was able to stop the export of AstraZeneca and use the doses locally when cases in that country surged.
Chibale added another challenge would be how to scale up production using existing infrastructure and getting the funding to do so.
"It really is important that we remember that we already have infrastructure that has been used for decades to basically roll out vaccines. There's also a case for new ways of funding. How the Ebola crisis was handled has provided a blueprint of how we can come together."
He stressed as long as not all countries vaccinated their populations, the pandemic would not end.
"South Africa is not safe unless all the countries on the African continent are safe. The sooner the vaccine can get here before the virus gets ahead of us, the better. If we don't do this quick enough as a global community, it'll have serious consequences."