The 6th European Union (EU) – African Union (AU) Summit has come to an end. This was an opportunity for Europe to thaw tensions with Africa in the response to COVID-19 and deepen cooperation amongst the member states “based on shared interests and values.” Coming into the Summit, the hoarding of vaccines by EU countries, the imposition of export restrictions for COVID tools, the discriminatory travel bans against Southern African countries, and the EU’s opposition to a temporary intellectual property (IP) waiver for COVID-19 tools have brought mistrust and a difficult backdrop. The two blocks historically have a difficult past.
Despite the difficulties, it is a mark of maturity that despite the rough edges in their relationship, the AU and EU member states continue to work toward a better partnership.
The social, economic, and political impacts of COVID-19 are unprecedented in scale and have exposed the weaknesses in the global health system. Ahead of the EU-AU Summit, Pandemic Action Network, together with nearly 40 African, European, and other civil society organizations, called on EU and AU member states to take six bold actions.
We welcome the announcement in the summit declaration of the various commitments aimed at supporting AU member states to respond to COVID-19 and build capacity for future health threats. The majority of these initiatives were re-packaged from previous pledges or commitments, most notably:
- Team Europe’s affirmation of the commitment to provide at least 450 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Africa in coordination with Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT).
- The commitment by Team Europe to mobilize EUR 425 million to accelerate vaccination.
- Team Europe’s commitment to support the building of manufacturing hubs in Africa with an investment of EUR 1 billion from the EU budget and the European Investment Bank.
The outcome document also flagged the support provided to COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) so far by Team Europe, amounting to over US$3 billion.
While we welcome these EU-AU Summit commitments, the scale of what’s required to end the COVID crisis for everyone demands that world leaders do much more and do so urgently.
The ACT-Accelerator — the global platform for collaboration on COVID-19 response — launched its financing framework this month, outlining clear and urgent grant financing asks and expectations of fair share voluntary contributions. While the needs are clear, the EU was not direct on plans to meet its fair share needed for the global COVID-19 response. The EU needs to act urgently to ensure the speedy delivery of vaccinations to save lives, protect livelihoods, and prevent emergence of new variants.
One of the important lessons of COVID-19 to African countries is that the continent cannot rely on the goodwill and charity of rich countries — including Europe — for its own health security. In the quest to address inequitable access to vaccines, tests, and treatments and to better prepare for future pandemics, AU member states have initiated various efforts including local manufacturing of biomedical products — especially vaccines — and the establishment of manufacturing and technology transfer partnerships and have called for a temporary waiver of IP rights.
While EU member states and companies have signed agreements and developed partnerships in support of the manufacturing agenda with different African countries — Rwanda, Senegal, and South Africa among others — and have committed to strengthen Africa’s continental health security through Africa CDC and to support Africa’s regulatory framework, the EU has once again, in a cautiously worded statement, hesitated to expressly heed the call by AU member states to support a temporary waiver of IP rights at the World Trade Organization. The financial support for manufacturing of health technologies is laudable, but the failure to support temporary waiver of IP to enable rapid production and distribution of the life-saving tools is inimical to the manufacturing objectives in the midst of this pandemic.
As civil society groups from across Africa, we expected more action to tackle inequitable access to vaccines and other COVID-19 tools. The EU, for example, has chosen to buy 200 million mRNA doses to then donate to Africa instead of directly financing COVAX to buy against its own strategy. There was some good news on research and development investment and manufacturing, but Africa and Europe did not agree on backing a TRIPS waiver though mRNA hubs will be established. The outcomes and partnership provide good potential for health systems strengthening, but the multilateral partnership between the blocs will succeed or fail based on the commitment both sides show to working together and living up to the Summit Joint Vision — and how quickly Europe can put words and pledges into action.