The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of vaccines in controlling infectious disease in sub-Saharan Africa and renewed interest in vaccine research and development across the continent.
Yet at this time, Africa produces only one percent of its routine vaccines.
“Africa has to build the capacity to produce vaccines,” said Ebere Okere, senior technical advisor at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and honorary senior public health advisor at the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This insufficient capacity to produce vaccines leaves the region dependent on imports for its vaccine needs, and makes it vulnerable to vaccine crises during health emergencies.
The COVID-19 pandemic served to ignite conversations among world leaders, researchers and scientists, covering everything from research and innovation to vaccine development and even the politics of vaccine production.
Yet in November 2022, leaders from Africa and Europe found themselves at loggerheads during a meeting in Brussels, Belgium, over how Africa could begin to develop and manufacture life-saving vaccines.
At the heart of the argument are lucrative intellectual property rights. The EU had offered to help Africa build vaccine manufacturing plants, but refused to waive intellectual property rights that would give Africans the right to copy the vaccine and speed up vaccine production.
On their side, African leaders argued that withholding intellectual property rights, in the third year of the pandemic, was unethical when it meant people in Africa had unequal access to life-saving COVID-19 vaccines.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa told a press conference at the time, “We are talking about the lives of millions of people rather than the profitability of a few companies.”
While the leaders failed to agree on a February 2022 summit, some concessions were made.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission – the EU’s executive arm – said the bloc would remain open to more negotiations around the waiver, which would be led by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Nigerian director-general of the World Trade Organisation.
These talks led to the creation of vaccine manufacturing centers in Senegal, South Africa, Rwanda, Algeria and Nigeria – most of which are not yet functional.
The breakthrough vaccine technology behind Pfizer and Moderna’s highly successful COVID-19 jabs, known as messenger RNA (mRNA), is expected to replicate existing vaccines and drive research into the production of new ones. Is. The technology could be aimed at diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria and AIDS.
Yet South Africa’s Ramaphosa has insisted that unless “intellectual property barriers” are removed, “the full operation of the mRNA hub” will be impeded.
In November last year, Gavi, the 23-year-old vaccine coalition that brings together public and private sector players to create equitable access to vaccines for children, revealed in a report that Africa had produced only 0.1 percent of global vaccines, despite being domestic. produced. Vaccine-preventable disease-related deaths account for 17 percent of the world’s population and 58 percent of children under the age of five.
In April 2021, the African Union Commission and the Africa Center for Disease Control committed to develop a framework to reach local manufacturing of 60 percent of Africa’s routine vaccine needs by 2040.
“We are heavily dependent on a global system that hasn’t really put us in the first place to supply most of the technology we need for our health system,” Okere told SciDev.Net.
“So the work that is being developed now … will not only solve the current pandemic problem, but will lay the foundation for us to have more resilience in our systems.”
She says Africa needs to find a way to engage and convince rich countries and the pharmaceutical industry to access IP exemptions
As Ramaphosa suggested in Brussels, profit is at the heart of the politics of vaccine research and production.
Simply put money is above life. “We are talking about the lives of hundreds of millions of people, rather than the profitability of a few companies,” Ramaphosa said.
According to Deborah King, vaccine research lead at Wellcome, one solution is advance purchase agreements, where governments agree to buy a specific number of jabs before they are produced.
This could be, argues King, a way to get the money needed to produce vaccines on the continent, while also ensuring profitability for manufacturers.
The consultancy group BCG also recommended advance purchase agreements in a research note on expediting vaccine manufacturing in Africa.
It said African manufacturers should focus on vaccines with “high supply constraints” and “low manufacturing complexity”, such as those for rotavirus and meningitis.
“While there is no panacea for the challenges facing African vaccine manufacturers, a comprehensive vaccine-manufacturing ecosystem is imperative,” the consultancy said.
“This will improve vaccine-supply security, help better deal with endemic diseases, and contribute to global pandemic preparedness, while promoting the continent’s socioeconomic development.”
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.
This article was supported by Global Health Strategies (GHS), an organization that uses advocacy, communication and policy analysis to improve health and well-being around the world.