Why Africa must step up own vaccine manufacturing plants

Only seven African countries have companies operating across the vaccine-manufacturing value chain. [Courtesy]

The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a global health crisis and an economic recession. According to the World Health Organisation, of the 170 million confirmed cases reported to date, the highest-burden resides in America. This accounts for 40 per cent while Africa hosts 2 per cent of the cases.

Following restrictive policies to contain the spread of the virus, the world economy shrunk by 4.3 per cent in 2020 with Africa’s economy shrinking by 3 per cent. Covid-19 vaccines, therefore, provide the best means to spur economic growth and help manage the pandemic.

More than two billion vaccine doses have been administered globally. Africa has received 1 per cent of the global supply vaccinating a mere 1.7 per cent of its population compared to North America that has vaccinated 54 per cent. The WHO warns that delayed access to vaccines in Africa could lead to a “catastrophic moral failure” as the virus could mutate into strains that existing vaccines would not protect against.

The uneven distribution of manufacturing and financing capabilities globally have led to unequal access. African countries are largely reliant on external suppliers and donor institutions to obtain subsidised vaccines.

The huge spike in cases in India has affected Africa’s access to vaccines. The African Union (AU) and the World Bank Group have set aside finances to help Africa expand their vaccine pools and strengthen national health systems. On manufacturing, Africa has less than 0.1 per cent of the world’s vaccine production.

Only seven African countries have companies operating across the vaccine-manufacturing value chain, and of these, only one – Senegal – exports a WHO pre-qualified vaccine. Most local pharmaceutical companies engage in packaging, labelling and occasionally fill and finish steps.

Some of the challenges facing vaccine manufacturing in Africa include lack of technical capacity, finance and even low demand. High production costs in Africa lead to pharmaceutical manufacturing companies looking for alternative markets to set up their factories with a shift to India and Bangladesh. Poor regulations and challenges in implementing quality assurance have undermined vaccine manufacturing in Africa.

Covid-19 presents an opportunity for African countries to enhance their vaccine manufacturing capacity. African leaders have convened meetings to discuss ways to improve financing and manufacturing of vaccines. 

African governments should provide tax breaks and further incentives to encourage global manufacturers to set up vaccine manufacturing bases in Africa. African governments could enter into long-term purchase agreements with these vaccine manufacturing plants to increase the demand - furthering investments in vaccine production and eliminating demand uncertainties.

This shift in focus on local capacity can be implemented in the current fight against Covid-19 as some local pharmaceutical manufacturing companies are quickly able to shift and participate in some aspects of the vaccine formulation, such as filling and packaging. Some local pharmaceutical manufacturing companies have been licensed by the WHO to develop syringes used to administer the vaccines.

Recent calls for uplifting of Covid-19 patent rights could help enhance Africa’s vaccine manufacturing capacity.

The announcement of the production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in South Africa is a first. Further collaboration between global and Africa vaccine manufacturing companies will follow.

The inclusion of global players will encourage governments to come up with better regulations to govern vaccine manufacturing. This will improve quality controls of vaccines and encourage export of vaccines from Africa.

Investing in Africa’s vaccine production capacity will not only help in current fight against Covid-19, but also help Africa be better prepared and resilient against future pandemics - which are inevitable.

 - Dr Rono is a managing partner at E&K Consulting Firm, while Michael is an associate. E&K, is a member of Coalition for Health Research and Development. (CHReaD).