In a paper published by the respected journal Nature, Emmanuel Margolin, Wendy Burgers and Edward Sturrock et al (“Prospects for SARS-CoV-2 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines in Africa”), a strong case is made to develop Africa’s pharmaceutical capacity.
By providing empirical evidence of how the pandemic has spread across the continent and how access to vaccines remains the elephant in the room, the researchers make it clear that the only sustainably future for Africa’s health and socio-economic wellbeing is by upgrading the continental pharmaceutical value chain.
They write, “Clearly, there is an urgent need for capacity development and the available resources should focus on solutions that are specific to the needs of the continent. For example, there is an urgent need to inexpensively manufacture viral antigens for serological testing…
“Therapeutics development should focus on repurposing existing drugs, or using convalescent plasma that can rapidly be used to treat infection and could be prioritised for individuals who are at high risk.
“Appropriate manufacturing partnerships need to be established to produce vaccines that could be tested and licensed on the continent, to limit reliance on global initiatives that may be overwhelmed by the global demand for a vaccine. In fact, this may present an opportunity for governments to finally invest in much-needed cGMP-compliant vaccine manufacturing facilities.
“Although the situation is unquestionably dire, Africa has an important role in the global fight against COVID-19, and the resilience and resourcefulness of the people are not to be underestimated.”
What is happening in South Africa vis-à-vis Johnson & Johnson and Aspen Pharmacare reinforces the need to build genuine internal capacity.
Remember how Johnson & Johnson and Aspen announced with much fanfare how they would be manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines in South Africa?
Well, at least 32 million millions of those doses are being exported to rich European countries like Germany even as South Africa – the African continent’s worst-affected country – struggles to vaccinate its citizens.
This is because of an imposed stipulation in the contract which stops the South African government from imposing any export restrictions.
A spokesperson for South Africa’s Health Ministry, Popo Maja, has said the government didn’t like the conditions but had no leverage in the matter.
“The government was not given any choice,” he said recently. “Sign contract or no vaccine.”
A human rights lawyer, Fatima Hassan, was quoted by the New York Times reacting to this thus: “The disproportionate amount of power that Johnson & Johnson has exercised is really concerning. It is harming our efforts to get speedy supplies into the system.”
This speaks to the tragic situation of an Africa not in control of its own destiny.
We are overly reliant on foreign governments and industries for our day-to-day survival and that simply places Africa bottom of the global food chain.
The case has been made time and again for Africa to build its pharmaceutical capacity, and it is well past time to move beyond words and venture into action.
In 2020, researchers Michael Conway, Tania Holt, Adam Sabow and Irene Yuan Sun highlighted that imported drugs account for between 70 and 90 percent of medicines used in Africa.
Africa’s pharmaceutical sector is worth more than US$20 billion per annum, and this is money that is mostly leaving the continent.
The researchers also said Africa had less than 400 drug manufacturers based on the continent, and these are supposed to service a market of around 1,3 billion people. Comparatively, there are tens of thousands of drug-makers in Europe, North America, India and the Far East – and these companies rely a lot on medicinal plants found in Africa. Not only that, they then sell the developed products back to Africa for a tidy profit.
What is stopping SADC, for instance, from leveraging on a regional economy of scale and establishing a pharmaceutical value chain so that we do not have to rely on companies like Johnson & Johnson and Aspen which raise a false optimism?
A properly structured value chain encompassing research and development, cultivation of medicinal plants, production, packaging, marketing, storage, distribution and retail is not a far-fetched idea.
It all comes down to two things: money and commitment.
Surely we cannot say that SADC, and indeed Africa, does not have the money to build a pharmaceutical value chain.
The African Development Bank has already announced a US$3 billion facility to develop just that, and if governments, research institutions and the private sector can also come on board with policy, financial and technical investments, then we can get somewhere meaningful in a reasonable space of time.
We can simply start by setting aside an agreed percentage of tax revenues every year towards this.
That way, we will be on the path to true self-determination rather than the continued reliance on the benevolence of foreigners, and we will stop being at the mercy of sharks who put their own commercial interests first.