African nations push plans to manufacture own Covid vaccines

Saturday December 04 2021
Aspen Pharmacare

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta visits Aspen Pharmacare, the South African-based subsidiary of Aspen, which manufactures and distributes the Johnson and Johnson Covid-19 vaccine. PHOTO | PSCU

By Elizabeth Merab

As the world heads into the third year of the Covid-19 pandemic, health representatives globally are worried that the virus will outpace global effort to vaccinate large portions of the world population by the first half of 2022.

Despite initial commitments from the Covax global vaccine distribution mechanism to ship two billion doses by end of 2021, efforts have fallen short, with only about 1.45 billion doses expected by January.

Multiple factors such as failure to obtain regulatory authorisation, India’s vaccines export ban in April and protracted negotiations with firms such as Moderna and Pfizer have contributed to the supply constraints.

At the current rate, it appears that neither the African Union’s goal of 60 percent vaccination by 2023 nor the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) projection to hit the year-end target of fully vaccinating 40 per cent will be achieved.

Vaccine inequality

Vaccine inequality is nothing new. When swine flu broke out in 2009, rich vaccine-producing countries refused to export jabs until domestic needs were met. In 2010, children in Morocco and Algeria missed out on life-saving meningitis vaccines amid a global shortage.


Now African leaders have resolved to ramp up local vaccine manufacturing. A high-level meeting by the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) agreed to increase the manufacturing capacity for Covid-19 vaccines to ensure the continent does not lag behind in vaccinating its population.

The African Union has announced the launch of the Partnership for African Vaccines Manufacturing (Pavm) to enable manufacturing of up to 60 percent of the continent’s vaccine requirements by 2040.

“The technological transfers that are being negotiated range from fill-and-finish to cater for the emergency and short term needs, to manufacture under license using existing capacity for medium term needs, and finally the establishment of full manufacturing plants in Africa,” said Dr Ahmed Ogwell, the deputy director of the AfricaCDC.

As of September, there were at least 12 Covid-19 production facilities set up or in the pipeline across six African countries.

In June the WHO enlisted a team of South African researchers to crack the code for an mRNA Covid-19 vaccine following Moderna and Pfizer’s refusal to share their patent and then teach others around the world to make it. South Africa will be the first of several mRNA hubs, allowing more and more countries to produce vaccines.

Pfizer and German firm BioNTech in July announced a partnership with Biovac Institute in Cape Town to produce an mRNA-based Covid-19 jab. The partnership will see the giant pharmaceuticals transfer technology, install equipment and develop manufacturing capability. The first doses will be produced in 2022, the firms announced.

Rwanda plant

In October, BioNTech announced it has signed an agreement with the Rwandan government and Institut Pasteur de Dakar in Senegal to construct the first mRNA vaccine manufacturing facility in Africa starting in mid-2022. The plan is to initially build a production line with an annual capacity of 50 million doses that could be used to make vaccines for such diseases as malaria and tuberculosis as well as for Covid-19, Reuters reported.

This week Cuba expressed readiness to revive its plans to establish a vaccine manufacturing plant in Zimbabwe, which stalled due to the pandemic.

In Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta officially announced plans to set up a fill-finish vaccine plant known as Kenya Biovax Limited in the next six months.

Speaking to The EastAfrican, Kenya’s acting Director-General of Health Patrick Amoth said the government, through multi-stakeholder investments will pump in $17.8 million (Sh2 billion).

“Our ultimate goal is to have a plant that will make a vaccine from design to market product,” said Dr Amoth.

Further, he mentioned that Korea had expressed readiness to support Kenya construct a human vaccine production facility at the Konza Technopolis. Private pharmaceuticals like Dawa Life Sciences are also throwing their hats into the ring with plans to set up a production plant for vaccines or injectables' plant.” said Mwai Ngibuini, head of business development at Dawa Life Sciences in an interview with The EastAfrican.

Exports of AstraZeneca’s vaccine doses produced by the Serum Institute of India are expected to restart this month, filling part of the shortfall.

“We have set the budget, identified the premises, worked out partnerships with successful plants so that we can build a plant that with capabilities to fill-finished to vials, labeled and packaged domestically,” said Dr Amoth, adding that He however declined to name the partners.

Fill and finish is the process of filling vials with vaccine and finishing the process of packaging the medicine for distribution.

"Our vision is for vaccines development and manufacturing to happen on the continent, from R&D, production for the continent and the global market as well." he said, adding that "we are targeting to affordably give people access to expertise and health technology that is currently not available in the country and continent."

A meeting in October between health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe, Exim Bank of Korea director and senior Korean government officials revealed that the bank has already received approval to support the initiative.

“We also want to leverage on the partnerships Korea had in Vietnam and Myanmar to see what succeeded and borrow the best practices,” Dr Amoth noted.

“We have a plan to establish a plant in Zimbabwe for the production of vaccines. That project started before Covid-19 but we stopped because of the pandemic,” Cuban ambassador to Zimbabwe Carmelina Rodriguez announced on November 22, according to local media.

On November 18, César Sanz Rodriguez -- Moderna’s vice president of medical affairs for Europe, Middle East and Africa -- in a meeting with African stakeholders was at pains to explain why the biotechnology company has been reluctant to share its patent to allow South African manufacturers to step up their production capacity.

But even with the hurdles, some countries have begun laying the ground work to develop the continent’s capacity.