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COVID-19 renews Africa's vigour to manufacture own vaccines

One of the key lessons that Africa has learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic is that it is high time for the continent to manufacture its own vaccines. Vaccines are the frontline defence to prevent TB, polio, measles, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, hepatitis B and some types of pneumonia and diarrhea, especially for Africa which bears the heaviest global burden of the disease.

Yet, despite making up 14 per cent of the world's population, Africa accounts for less than one per cent of the global vaccine production, according to the World Health Organisation. A most glaring feature of the global vaccine industry is the dominance by a few Western-based multinational pharmaceutical firms that control the estimated USD$35 billion business of producing and selling medicines and vaccines.The consequence of this is that world regions such as Africa remain totally reliant on vaccine imports and donations to address their health care needs.

Unsurprisingly, emerging trends from the COVID-19 pandemic show that wealthier nations with the capacity to manufacture vaccines have been able to vaccinate more of their population. On the flip side, regions such as Africa that have no capacity to produce vaccines also have low rates of vaccination.

Africa's most immediate priority response against COVID-19 is to guarantee predictability in vaccine deliveries and to make the jabs accessible to communities where they are needed.

However, latest data shows that less than 11 per cent of Africa's 1.2 billion people have been fully vaccinated. In contrast, nearly 72 per cent of high-income countries have been fully vaccinated and wealthier nations are now doling out booster shots and stockpiling vaccines for future use.

Without predictable and reliable COVID-19 vaccine supplies, African countries are often forced to react at short notice to accept doses, often with limited shelf lives, greatly complicating delivery logistics for already-stretched health systems.This unethical and unfair treatment on distribution and access to COVID-19 vaccines has renewed calls from global leaders and health experts to break the cycle of dependency on a highly concentrated global vaccine market.

"How can a continent of 1.2 billion--projected to be 2.4 billion in 30 years, where one in four people in the world will be African--continue to import 99 per cent of its vaccines?", asks Dr John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa concurs: "We just cannot continue to rely on vaccines that are made outside of Africa, because they never come." From Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari stresses that Africa must join in research and build capacity to produce and manufacture vaccines to prepare for future health emergencies.

At the global platforms, the IMF Managing Director, Kristalina Georgieva, is pushing for robust and reliable vaccine capacity in Africa to be regarded as a global public good, and therefore deserving of global support.

Vaccine manufacturing is no doubt a sophisticated and capital-intensive enterprise that requires specialised equipment, inputs, storage facilities, and skilled labour. It also requires heavy investments for continuous research and development.

But these factors have not deterred some African countries from making local, home-grown production of vaccines a reality. Already, there are 12 COVID-19 vaccine production facilities either in operation or in the pipeline in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal and South Africa.

Nigeria is negotiating with the World Bank and other lenders to raise about US$30 million to help finance a vaccine plant, while Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Kenya have expressed interest in manufacturing vaccines and other medicines.

In response to calls from health and economic experts to step up local capacity to manufacture vaccines, the African Union last year launched the Partnership for African Vaccine Manufacturing.

The AU has also signed an agreement with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to increase investment in vaccine research and development, training of experts and forging new partnerships. In addition, the African Export-Import Bank and the African Finance Corporation are co-operating to mobilise funding and advisory support for vaccine manufacturing.

What Africa now urgently requires to establish a sustainable vaccine manufacturing ecosystem on the continent is strong political will, enhanced coordination across the continent and elimination of trade barriers across borders. These priority actions are critical if Africa hopes to achieve its ambition to produce 60 per cent of the much-needed vaccines locally by 2040.

[Source: By Stanley Achonu, Punch, Lagos, NGA, 05Feb22]

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