WTO chief calls for diversification of vaccine production

Two people greet each other.
World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, left, talks to Swedish Foreign Trade Minister Anna Hallberg during a European foreign trade ministers meeting in Brussels.
(Francisco Seco / Pool Photo)

The head of the World Trade Organization said Thursday that it is of paramount importance to diversify vaccine manufacturing and to have more production in Africa and Latin America to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told European Union legislators that normal market forces for exports and imports couldn’t apply when it comes to the life-or-death issue of COVID-19 vaccines, because many of the world’s wealthiest nations were hoarding the shots for their population when the crisis hit their home turf.

She said that the world has the capacity to manufacture about 5 billion vaccine doses overall but that as the virus has spread “we require twice and three times that. So the capacity was not there.”


One of the main challenges is diversifying vaccine production, which is 80% concentrated in 10 European, North American and South Asian nations, Okonjo-Iweala said. She called the situation a problem that “has come home to roost.”

“It’s not normal that Africa, with 1.3 billion people, has 0.17 % of the manufacturing capacity of the world,” she said. “So this has to change.” She added that Latin America has about 2% of global production capacity.

Last year the World Health Organization launched a program that aimed to scale up production of COVID-19 vaccines in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Pfizer and Moderna refused to participate.

April 30, 2021

A global health summit set to begin Friday in Rome is expected to draw Group of 20 industrial and emerging market nations, the heads of international organizations and representatives of global health bodies. It will be co-hosted by the European Union’s executive arm and Italy.

The European Union is set to raise many of the same points Okonjo-Iweala made, specifically looking to increase manufacturing production in Africa.

EU nations have criticized a call by the United States to waive COVID-19 vaccine patents as a way to increase supplies, arguing the move would yield no short-term or intermediate improvement and could even have a negative effect.

Okonjo-Iweala sought to remain neutral on the issue, but said WTO members could find flexibility to make sure more vaccines are produced in developing nations.