Southern Times Writer
Windhoek – For a year now, African countries have had the short end of the stick when it comes to access to COVID-19 vaccines.
Now, a renewed push to waive intellectual property rights and increased investment in local vaccine manufacturing could see Africans finally getting better access to the inoculants.
Ahead of the European Union-African Union Summit in France this past week, there appeared to be consensus on relaxation of intellectual property rights so as to allow more manufacturers to produce low-cost, generic vaccines.
French Minister for Foreign Trade Franck Riester this week said, “We think it is important that there is access to all for the vaccine and those countries that wish to do so can produce the vaccines themselves on their territory. We believe that intellectual property should never be a barrier to this ability.”
However, a workable deal on the matter is still a few months away, even as World trade Organisation Director-General Ngozi Okonjo pushes for a compromise between rich and developing countries much sooner than that.
While that is being thrashed out, several African countries – including SADC member state South Africa – have made huge strides in producing vaccines so that the continent reduces its reliance on imports from America, Asia and Europe.
Africa presently imports about 99 percent of all its annual vaccine requirements.
In January, South African-born billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong launched a project that is hoped will result in the production of the first entirely African-made COVID-19 vaccine.
After touring that facility and two others involved in vaccine manufacturing in South Africa, World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus said the country’s efforts were crucial to vaccinating all eligible Africans against COVID-19, as well as other diseases.
The three facilities are the Biomedical Research Institute (Stellenbosch University), Afrigen Biologics & Vaccines, and Biovac.
“More than half of the world’s population is now fully vaccinated, and yet 84% of the population of Africa is yet to receive a single dose,” Ghebreyesus said. “Much of this inequity has been driven by the fact that globally vaccine production is concentrated in a few, mostly high-income countries. One of the most obvious lessons of the pandemic, therefore, is the urgent need to increase local production of vaccines, especially in low and middle-income countries.”
And Soon-Shiong, who was born in South Africa but is now based in the United States, emphasised the importance of Africa producing its own vaccines.
“We want to manufacture this in Africa, for Africa, and export it to the world,” he said, adding that the facility could produce as many as a billion doses per year by 2025.
At the opening of the plant, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa also highlighted the need to “shed those colonial chains” and become self-sufficient.
“Africa should no longer go cap in hand to the Western world begging and begging for vaccines… Africa should no longer be last in line.”
Petro Terblanche, the MD of Afrigen, lamented how global vaccine manufacturers were reluctant to work with their African counterparts, but said this should not stop the drive to grow local production capacity.
“My objective was to build capacity for lower-income countries … Unfortunately, Big Pharma has ended up on the other side. We’re still wishing that they’ll collaborate with us but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen…
“What’s important is that we build capacity and the capability to make vaccines, not only for COVID but for all the future needs of the continent. The goal is by 2040 for Africa to be producing 60 percent of the vaccines it requires.”
And Patrick Tippoo, executive director of the African Vaccine Manufacturing Initiative (AVMI), has said COVID-19 actually provided an opportunity for Africa to plug its vaccine-supply gaps via local manufacturing
Rwanda and Senegal also plan to construct COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing plants in partnership with BioNTech; while Nigeria and Ghana have announced plans to develop their own vaccine production facilities. In North Africa, Algeria, Egypt and Morocco have signed agreements with COVID-19 vaccine producers.
However, the continent faces challenges related to financing and access to water and electricity in its quest to become vaccine self-sufficient in the short to medium-term.
On Right Track
Meanwhile, Malawi’s Minister of Health, Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda says victory against the COVID-19 pandemic is possible as long as the Southern African Development Community shares best practices.
Chiponda is Chairperson of the SADC Committee of Ministers of Health and those responsible for HIV and Aids.
At a regional review of the COVID-19 situation by the Committee last week, she commended SADC for being the first to detect and report the omicron variant, adding that this showed the potential the region had in making meaningful contributions healthcare globally.
World Health Organisation Africa Director Dr Matshidiso Moeti is also of the view that the continent is on the right track as regards getting a handle on managing the pandemic.
“Over the past two years, the African continent has gotten smarter, faster, and better at responding to each new surge in cases of COVID-19,” said Moeti recently. “We are finally able to say that if current trends hold, there is light at the end of the tunnel. As long as we remain vigilant, and we act intensely particularly on vaccination, the continent is on track for controlling the pandemic.”
Africa has battled four waves of the pandemic, with the WHO Africa office saying each wave had come “with higher peaks or more total new cases than the previous one”. However, the fourth wave “was over in six weeks” and “represents the first time a wave’s surge in cases has not led to a commensurate increase in hospitalizations and deaths”.
Moeti emphasised that Africa should continue to strengthen its health systems so it is better prepared to manage future waves of the pandemic.