With political will and investment, Africa can take a shot at own COVID-19 vaccine

ADDIS ABABA – Africa has the capacity to produce its own coronavirus vaccines but political will and infrastructural investments are needed in helping finance the lifesaving injections to stop the pandemic, experts have urged.

Speaking at an Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) high-level panel discussion on whether Africa was ready to finance its own vaccines, leading experts felt that Africa needed strong political will and all-round infrastructure to successfully roll out its own vaccines.

World Health Organization Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom, told the panel that the development of vaccines in record time in response to COVID-19 had given the world reason for hope but the hope must be for all.

“No country can vaccinate its way out of the pandemic not even the wealthy ones,” Dr. Tedros emphasized, warning that as long as the virus was circulating, it would mutate.

Equitable vaccine distribution the only sure way to stop it, the WHO Chief said.

“Even with the vaccines, we still have a long road ahead,” he said, warning that COVID-19 had destroyed economies, disrupted trade, travel and tourism, leaving import-reliant African countries exposed.

Citing the World Bank, Dr. Tedros noted that for every month that vaccines were delayed in reaching Africa, $13.8 billion was lost in GDP.

“The fastest way to get economies on track is vaccine equity,” he said, adding, “Ultimately Africa needs to be able to meet its own needs for vaccines and other essential products. That means financing local manufacturing capacity, comprehensive regulation and sustainable supply chains.”

Dr. Tedros noted that vaccines production needed to be scaled-up in countries where they are being produced with pharmaceutical companies being asked to share intellectual property rights, data and know-how in the manufacture of vaccines with Africa.

The WHO has established the COVID Technology Access Pool, known as CTAP to accelerate the development of products, including vaccines to fight COVID-19.

The pandemic has underscored the critical gap in vaccine manufacturing in Africa which represents 26 percent of the world’s population but has less than 0.1 percent of world vaccines production.

Dr. Tedros called on African countries to ratify the treaty establishing the African Medicines Agency (AMA) to regulate the manufacturing of home-grown medical products, in addition to supporting a proposal by South Africa and India for Intellectual Property rights waiver at the World Trade Organization.

“We are one year with this global pandemic and vaccine apartheid is unfolding before us,” bemoaned Winnie Byanyima, the Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

She said a year on, there was no global plan to get COVID-19 vaccines to everyone and to end the pandemic, yet 25 years ago the world acted on ending HIV/AIDS.

“Rich countries are vaccinating people at a rate of one person per second yet the majority of developing countries have not administered even one dose. As of last week less than one percent of Africans had received vaccines and most of these were in one country.”

Byanyima regretted that Africa’s ambition to vaccinate 60 percent of its population to achieve herd immunity was not handled at the global level.

Rich countries and big pharmaceuticals were not sharing the vaccine know-how while African countries were paying double the price for vaccines than rich countries.

Responding to questions of sharing intellectual property, Susan Silbermann, the Global COVID-19 Task Force Leader and President of Pfizer Vaccines, said Pfizer was ready to work with Africa. It has laid out a plan to share expertise, data and tools publicly in drug development and in manufacturing capacities.

“There are lots of questions about intellectual property, about manufacturing capabilities, about building facilities,” Ms. Silbermann explained.

“These things take time. There is not a magic wand, there is not a snapping of the finger. There is not a writing of a big check that it can allow anyone anywhere in the world to do the kind of manufacturing that is required for vaccines such as the one Pfizer has developed.”

Stavros Nocolaou, the Senior Executive responsible for Strategic Trade at a global pharmaceutical company, Aspen, said the best economic recovery plan for any country was to ramp up vaccinations to achieve desired herd immunity.

He called for long-term planning to invest in capacity building and skills. The key to this was for Africa to identify its strengths and to select the right partners to tap into local resources and knowledge.

Africa is ready to produce vaccines because it has produced vaccines for other diseases, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) Director, Dr. John Nkengasong.

“We know that vaccines are the fundamental underpinning of the health security on the continent and we have to invest in that,” Dr. Nkengasong said, adding that, “If we do not do this we will move towards the endemicity of this virus on the continent and will have devastating effects going forward.”

Benedict Oramah, President of the Africa-Export Bank (Afreximbank), said Africa had no choice but to invest in developing its own vaccines.

The Bank has provided $2bln funding for the purchase of 270 million doses of vaccines. Africa needs more than $6 billion to procure vaccines to complement the COVAX facility.

Mr. Omarah said Africa should support its own institutions to finance the development of its own vaccines.

The panel agreed that bolstering capacity in Africa to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines would go a long towards helping the continent’s recovery.