Africa dream of drug self-reliance given reality check

Thursday August 18 2022

Afrigen biotechnology company and Vaccine Hub facility, a manufacturing laboratory in Cape Town. PHOTO | AFP


Janssen vaccines in Africa are still being supplied from Johnson & Johnson (J&J) international in spite of a deal with the South Africa-based Aspen Pharmacare Aspen Pharmacare to have the production done on the continent.

In the November 2021 deal, Aspen was to produce Johnson and Johnson’s one-shot Covid-19 vaccine (Aspenovax vaccine) as a fill-and-finish for the continent. Some 500 staffers were trained to produce vaccines at the sterile production line dedicated to producing the vaccine.

Even though similar proposals for local production arose across Africa, Aspen was the trailblazer in clinching a deal. The Aspen facility was projected to have a 300 million-dose capacity per year and had already been done and sent to the African Union’s pooled procurement facility for distribution to African states.

But early in the year, Aspen revealed that it had not clinched any more orders for the Covid-19 vaccine, and was on the verge of shutting down that operation.

During a global summit on the pandemic organised by the White House in May, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa blamed Aspen’s predicament on “international organisations responsible for procuring vaccines for the continent” failure to buy vaccines here. “This immediately just devalues the whole process of local manufacturing and local production of vaccines,” President Ramaphosa said.

Africa is largely dependent on the global community for vaccine delivery, absorbing 65 percent of all vaccines provided by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (Gavi) — the public-private global health partnership Vaccine Alliance whose goal is to increase access to immunisation in poor countries.


The vaccines are paid for by donors.

The continent has since the beginning of the year been experiencing a steady vaccine supply with other vaccines having overtaken the J&J one whose supplies remain at 29.4 percent compared with all the others combined.

Commitment to long-term

During a recent briefing with Acting Director of Africa CDC, Dr Ahmed Ogwell Ouma, said supplies of Janssen vaccine doses coming to African countries are instead being procured from J&J international.

Aspen’s quandary has raised questions about Africa’s ambitious dream to become more self-reliant in the long term even as it addresses its current vaccination needs.

Read: AU pushes for Covid vaccines made in Africa

“We must have a conversation about domestic resources integrating and bringing together global resources from international aid and directing them and ensuring they purchase African manufactured vaccines,” said Dr Githinji Gitahi, group chief executive, Amref Health Africa last week at a discussion titled “Decolonizing global health through autonomous manufacturing in Africa.”

Regional director for Africa, Open Society Foundations, Muthoni Wanyeki, alluding to what seemed to be a clamour by several states to attract investment in the production of Covid-19 vaccines post-pandemic, said not every country needs to be producing the vaccine.

“We need to take a collective regional approach in all aspects, like the African research universities alliance does with three vaccine production hubs in Ghana, Uganda and South Africa. ‘‘This kind of understanding of the need to pull, share and work collectively is extremely important,” emphasized Muthoni.

But according to the managing director of Afrigen Biologics (Pty) Ltd in Cape Town, South Africa, Prof Petro Terblanche, one of Africa’s greatest undoing is the lack of a conducive environment for trade and sustainable manufacturing.

“If we want to build a sustainable manufacturing sector on this continent, then we must minimise market uncertainty,” she said inferring this is what had undone initial gains made on the Aspen deal.

Senior technical advisor at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change Dr Ebere Okereke, who is co-leading the Africa CDC-led PAVM, production of medical technology said, “We have a responsibility to start our role in achieving health equity, not just in response to vaccine manufacturing but to the broader access to instruments of health improvement and disease prevention.”

Dr Okereke said PAVM was currently working on the enabling factors including defining what vaccinations the continent needs, skills development, research and development, regulatory systems and who is going to do what among others.

“We have to ask ourselves beyond the advocacy, the strategies and agreements, why are we not succeeding,” posed Amref’s Dr Githinji suggesting that the problem may be that African states operate independently and nationalising their problems.

To succeed, he said African states must invest more public funding into the exercise, accept the startup premium to African products and think of the African manufacturing agenda being part of the global supply chain.

Read: African countries acquire over 38m Covid-19 vaccines

“Africa still has sub-optimal financing of health. But there’s going to be a lot of money required in the beginning. There is the need for our own governments to invest in this through public sector funding and to leverage funding opportunities from the private sector through commercial interests or foundations or other donors,” he said.