Byanyima explained that the new Omicron variant may have come as a huge risk especially if the vaccines need to be updated.
Hilary Bainemigisha
Editor @New Vision


The Executive Director of UNAIDS, Winnie Byanyima, has called on Africa to raise its voice to demand global rules to change.

She was addressing the conference on public health in Africa (CPHIA 2021), on its Day two on December 15th together with Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, and Dr. Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

“Pharmaceutical companies continue to prioritise sales in rich countries instead, to maximise their profit. We have estimated that Pfizer, Moderna & BioNTech alone, are making a $1,000 profit every second. A thousand dollars every second!” Byanyima said. 

“We have seen it with AIDS, now with COVID, that for a global health emergency, to beat it, you need a global plan. We cannot achieve equity to vaccines and other life-saving health technologies in isolation. We require international co-operation and solidarity."

The virtual conference, which was convened by the African Union and Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), brought together political leaders, senior policymakers, scholars, advocates, and innovators to discuss how to create a new public health order for the continent, collaborative research, and enhanced surveillance to boost response to future pandemics.

It started on December 14 with more than 10,000 participants and will close on December 16.

While contributing to the discussion on Covid 19 research capacity, advocacy, manufacturing and distribution in Africa, Byanyima noted that it is almost 2 years since Africa reported its first COVID-19 cases. 

And just over 1 year since the first vaccine doses were administered outside of clinical trials. Since then, the unequal distribution of COVID vaccines has been a global moral failure.

“Africa has continuously been at the back of the COVID-19 vaccine queue. Over 65% of people in rich countries are fully vaccinated; in Africa only 8% are. At the start of this pandemic, it was COVID-19 killing people. Now it's lack of access to vaccines,” she said.

Referring to the past experience with HIV, Byanyima said 12 million Africans died when antiretrovirals for HIV were out of reach for the global South for some time.

“It is right that Africa must strengthen self-reliance in the development and manufacturing of life-saving technologies. We must never again find ourselves dependent on what other countries and pharmaceutical companies may choose to provide,” she said.

The inaugural conference comes at a time when Africa is suffering inequitable access to Covid-19 services and products. 

The pandemic saw Africa’s previous sponsors withdraw to take care of their own people and affairs first. 

According to the conference organisers, today, less than 20 African countries met the global goal of vaccinating at least 10% of the adult population by September 30, while nearly 90% of high income-countries met this target.

Byanyima explained that the new Omicron variant may have come as a huge risk especially if the vaccines need to be updated, and the same barriers of profit remain but it also offers an opportunity to push the reset button. 

She warned that if Africa does nothing, it will again be pushed further to the back of the queue.

“In order to end this pandemic for everyone everywhere, we need a change in the rules of trade, so we have automatic waivers for health emergencies. We need governments to have the power to establish that knowledge must be shared to protect global health,” she advised.

Byanyima is a Ugandan aeronautical engineer, politician, and diplomat. 

Form being a Member of Parliament representing Mbarara town, she went to serve as the director of the Gender Team in the Bureau for Development Policy at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) from 2006. 

She then went to head Oxfam International as the executive director till 2019, when she became the executive director of UNAIDS.

“This pandemic can still be remembered in history as the time we chose to put the collective right to safety for all ahead of the commercial monopolies of the few. But we have to act now, together, in solidarity. Africa must raise its voice to demand for global rules to change,” Byanyima said in conclusion.

CPHIA 2021 is a virtual event and is free for all participants. 

It will feature seven scientific plenaries and eight parallel sessions, and more than 40 side events that focus on the main pillars of the African Union’s New Public Health Order to meet the aspirations of Agenda 2063 – the Africa We Want.


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