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 disease.
Yet, despite making up 14 percent of the world’s population, Africa accounts for less than one percent 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 $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 capacity to manufacture vaccines have been able to vaccinate more of their population. On the flip side, world 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.
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 percent of its vaccines?”, asks Dr John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
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 $30 million to help finance a vaccine plant, while Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Kenya have expressed interest in manufacturing vaccines and other medicines.
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.
Jacob Birir is a consultant on international development