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BRICS Steps Forward on Health, But Not Far Enough

Alissa Wang, BRICS Research Groups
July 27, 2018

At this year's BRICS summit, the South African presidency emphasized the issue of health, in particular research and development on vaccines. This has resulted in a concrete step forward for the BRICS in its health governance, although there remains much more to be done in the future.

At the BRICS health ministers meeting held in Durban on 20 July 2018, the members outlined five key issues for BRICS cooperation, including those of tuberculosis, universal health coverage (UHC), non-communicable diseases (NCDs), communicable diseases and the implementation of international health regulations of the World Health Organization (WHO). On tuberculosis, the health ministers stressed the importance of the United Nations high-level meeting on tuberculosis that will be hosted in New York in September, and stated that it was important for all the leaders of the BRICS countries to go personally to New York instead of delegating ministers or other persons to represent their countries. This is because of the significance of tuberculosis for the BRICS, as 50% of all cases and 60% of all cases of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) are in BRICS countries. The importance of this upcoming meeting was reiterated by the leaders in their Johannesburg Declaration released at the end of their summit on 26 July 2018. On UHC, the BRICS health ministers adopted a tool that evaluates and assesses the implementation of UHC for all BRICS countries.

In preparation for the leaders' summit, South Africa proposed five new areas of cooperation, the second of which is the "establishment of a Vaccine Research Centre for Collaboration with BRICS vaccine innovation and development partners," which is "intended to be a physical research centre focused on research and development and vaccine innovation." Progress was made in this regard, as in the leaders at Johannesburg committed to "strengthening the coordination and cooperation on vaccine research and development within BRICS countries, and welcome the proposal to establish a BRICS vaccine research and development centre."

The increasing importance placed on the BRICS health agenda, especially in terms of vaccines, coincided with one of the largest vaccination scandals in China. In the days leading up to the Johannesburg Summit, China was in the midst of one of the most pressing public health crisis in recent years as a large quantity of faulty childhood vaccines were administered throughout the country, causing injuries and even deaths. The vaccine scandal broke out during President Xi Jinping's state visit to Africa ahead of the summit. In Africa on his way to Johannesburg, he stated that "the violations by Changchun Changsheng Bio-technology are serious and appalling." Xi also ordered authorities to "cure the chronic disease [of corruption] and scratch poison from one's bones." This turn of events put the issue of health at the forefront of the BRICS Summit.

The Johannesburg Summit produced solid results in the area of health, namely endorse the establishment of the Vaccine Research Center. This is a concrete step forward for the role of BRICS in global health governance. For the first time in BRICS history, the members moved beyond the discussion of traditional global health issues in an abstract sense to agree to establish a physical centre for an important and specific area of research and innovation cooperation, namely vaccines. However, given the importance of health issues for developing countries and the promising potential of the BRICS in contributing to global health governance, much more could be done. China's vaccination scandal demonstrates the cross-cutting nature of health. Rather than a stand-alone agenda item, health has many dimensions that need to be addressed in harmony. In particular, China's vaccination scandal brought to forefront the intimate connection between a country's public health system and the deeply rooted issue of corruption, a traditional area of focus of BRICS cooperation. This is an intersection that BRICS has great ability to address. In addition, health issues should be discussed in the wider context of science and technology cooperation, trade in the pharmaceutical industry and innovation. In particular, the issue of health should be brought into the discussion about the fourth industrial revolution, which was a centrepiece of the Johannesburg Summit. There is also much potential for progress on health issues at BRICS outreach sessions because health is a priority for developing countries in Africa. There are also an abundance of lessons to be learned about health innovations from the development experience of African countries. Rwanda's highly successful and innovative vaccination program produced some of the most impressive immunization results in the world, both in coverage and in quality. Thus, although a concrete step forward was taken at Johannesburg, there remains a great deal of untapped potential in the BRICS for a richer and more comprehensive discussion on the issue of health.

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Alissa Wang
Alissa Wang is the chair of summit studies for the BRICS Research Group, and a research assistant at the G7 and G8 Research Group, the G20 Research Group, and the Global Health Diplomacy Program, based at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Trinity College at the University of Toronto. She is pursuing an undergraduate degree with a specialist in international relations, a major in global health and a minor in political science. She is an editor for the reports produced by the G20 Research Group summit studies team, an analyst for the G7 Research Group summit studies team, and works on compliance research. Alissa is interested in Chinese history and politics as well as China's role in global governance. She was a member of the field team at the G7 Elmau Summit in Germany in 2015, the G7 Ise Shima Summit in Japan and G20 Hangzhou Summit in China in 2016, the G20 Hamburg Summit in Germany in 2017 and the G7 Charlevoix Summit in Canada in 2018.

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