Thabiso Scotch Mufambi
Harare – Africa took a major stride in its quest to eradicate vaccine imports when the African Union Commission and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) on Tuesday this week, signed a memorandum of understanding, aimed at enhancing the continent’s vaccine research and development (R&D) and manufacturing capacity.
The partnership will be implemented by CEPI and the Africa Centres for Disease Control (Africa CDC) —a specialised institution of the African Union responsible for the prevention and control of diseases in Africa.
According to the Africa CDC, the continent requires about 1.3 billion doses of vaccines annually, representing 25 percent of global demand, but currently manufactures a paltry one percent or 12 million doses with the rest being imported.
At least six African countries (South Africa, Algeria, Senegal, Morocco, Egypt, and Tunisia) currently have capacity to produce various vaccines for diseases such as yellow fever, rabies and tetanus.
The scope of the collaboration between the Africa CDC and CEPI will see investment in vaccine R&D innovations to enable faster and easier production of vaccines in Africa, capacity building and creating partnerships that enable the sustainable expansion of vaccine manufacturing in Africa.
Commenting on the development, Africa CDC director, Dr John Nkengasong said: “Trusted partnership will be critical in advancing the vaccine manufacturing agenda on the continent. The partnership with CEPI symbolizes cooperation and collaboration to help respond to infectious disease threats and ensure Africa’s health security.”
In response, CEPI chief executive officer, Richard Hatchett said his organisation was ready to help the Africa build vaccine R&D and manufacturing capacity.
“Together we can strengthen Africa’s capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to emerging and re-emerging infectious threats. By building regional resilience and strengthening health security on the continent, we can mitigate the disproportionate health and economic impacts that epidemic infectious diseases can have on populations in low and middle-income countries,” he said.
The global COVID-19 crisis has provided impetus for Africa to become vaccine self-reliant given the current uneven distribution of the lifesaving Coronavirus drugs.
This prompted the Africa CDC to convene a virtual conference on Monday and Tuesday this week, which sought to discuss ways to expand Africa’s vaccine manufacturing capacity.
Speaking during the event which was themed; “Africa’s vaccine manufacturing capacity for health security,” Dr Nkengasong conceded that Africa had for too long relied on the outside world for vaccines.
“People who do not have their own capacity for vaccine manufacturing, diagnostics and therapeutics cannot guarantee their own health security. I think we have learnt that over and over in the last couple of months,” he said alluding to the fact that although COVID-19 vaccination in Africa was gathering pace, the continent had started receiving the drugs much later than other continents and in limited quantity.
AU champion for the COVID-19 vaccine strategy and acquisition, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa said the continued rise in global Coronavirus transmissions necessitated increased production of effective vaccines.
“The challenge that many African countries face is that the supply of vaccines is currently too slow to meet our needs. Our immediate task therefore is to secure sufficient vaccine doses for African countries through the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT), which has made valuable progress through its engagements with manufacturers. This effort is supported by other initiatives to manufacture vaccines on the continent, where possible, under license and in collaboration with current manufacturers. The Aspen facility in South Africa, for example, will make some 220 million doses available following AVATT’s agreement with Johnson & Johnson,” he said.
Ramaphosa said the pandemic had taught Africa to utilise existing capabilities, resources and skills.
“Through initiatives like the Africa Medical Supplies Platform, the continent has pioneered new ways of ensuring access to vital personal protective equipment as well as diagnostics and therapeutics. Importantly, the leaders of the continent have demonstrated the political will to act decisively in the face of this grave threat to health and well-being.
“Our task now is to harness all these capabilities, and to draw on the experience of the past year to build a vibrant and innovative African medical supplies manufacturing capability that meets the health needs of the continent’s people. This means that in the medium term, we need to expand existing capabilities into regional hubs that serve the Continent as a whole.”
He said the forging of sustainable public private partnerships could deliver technological expertise, financing and investment while collaboration with countries such as India could provide guidance on how they developed their own generic pharmaceutical industries.
“Such collaboration should form the basis of a longer-term strategy to develop a pharmaceutical industry that can achieve continental scale – taking advantage of the large, growing and increasingly integrated African market,” Ramaphosa said.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame said he had recently initiated contact with COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers with a view to commence local production.
“In the past few weeks or maybe months I had the opportunity to initiate contact with different manufactures of vaccines specifically focusing on the Messenger RNA technique used say by Moderna and Pfizer. I have briefed a few colleagues on our continent but we want to take this forward by discussing it with others that there is a company that is capable of this technique just as Moderna and Pfizer have been doing that is ready and willing (to partner with us) and we have been having these discussions. I will brief those responsible very soon,” he said.
“The whole idea is also how we can have this type of capability on our continent which really complements other ways like the method of vaccine manufacturing used by AstraZeneca.
“This is important if Africa is to move from feeling sorry for ourselves which is the case today, and I think no single person takes blame for that, but I think we have to overcome that and move from what we know has not worked for Africa to something we can do.”
The Africa CDC has set a target of increasing Africa’s vaccine manufacturing capacity for annual immunisation requirements to 60 percent by 2040, and to 100 percent for at least three emerging diseases, the Lassa fever, Rift Valley Fever and Ebola.