Vaccines for Africa: Could this be a flagship policy for the new Shadow DfID team?

As Jim Murphy begins to settle into his new role as Shadow Secretary for International Development, he will no doubt be considering the best policy with which to make his mark. It is hoped he will continue to address the failure of British banks to comply with money-laundering prevention laws and also to support the Early Years Campaign spearheaded by Ivan Lewis and Tessa Jowell. But what could Jim’s 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 its own vaccines? One sometimes wonders what it is about the model of foreign aid from UK governments that make things the way they are.


Let us just note that there are a number of domestic programmes and native providers of vaccines in Africa. However, taking a broad economic approach to 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 the rise of globalisation, it’s arguable that we don’t have to be so protectionist of our pharmaceutical industry. As it becomes harder to engage with any moral authority, the question remains of whether vaccine donation is counter-intuitive to a country’s development.


The notion of ‘International Development’ is multifaceted and inherently complex, varying according to the specific country conditions and the donor governments you might be referring to. When it comes to donating vaccines to Africa, these notions need a refresh. Handing out the leftovers of a pharmaceutical companies’ drug portfolio, well, it’s not really ‘developing’ much is it?


Some are waking up to realise the western-donated-vaccine model, with vaccines that aren’t originally designed for Africans countries and that are expensive, is not sustainable. Working on the frontline in some of the more resource-poor African states, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) argues 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 maintains “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 has come 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 suggest it could guide this charge, a Chinese government will do so and 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 the African country 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 vaccines 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. By Labour proposing something truly progressive and economically forward-thinking, along the lines of true development (i.e. Africa producing own vaccines), Labour could also win over those to the right (limiting foreign aid) and ensure the BME vote isn’t truly neglected.


Adebusuyi Adeyemi is an LCID member and Chair of the Young Fabians Health Network

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