It is time for Africa to focus on producing vaccines for its population.
In February 2021, UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres highlighted vaccine equity as “the biggest moral test before the global community.” This statement was evident during the COVID-19 pandemic which exposed the vulnerability of Africa’s health systems and amplified the urgency for the continent to become self-reliant in addressing public health challenges. The pandemic served as a reminder of the critical importance of equitable access to medical countermeasures, including vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics to safeguard the health and wellbeing of communities.
A matter of public good
At the 3rd International Conference on Public Health in Africa, (CPHIA) in Zambia, during the session themed ‘’Fostering African-led Innovation: Advancing Local Production in Vaccines, Diagnostics and Therapeutics’’, the challenges, opportunities, and strategic actions needed to take vaccine manufacturing on the continent forward were discussed.
In 2021, the African Union, its member states and partners set up an ambitious goal of achieving at least 60 percent of vaccine manufacturing in the continent by 2040. Just as good governance involves providing national security, infrastructure, and portable drinking water for public good, vaccine production should be a global public good. Despite being a complex process that requires huge financing, specialised equipment, inputs, storage facilities, and skilled labour, access to vaccines will have a profound impact on public health and the well-being of the population.
The Institut Pasteur in Dakar, a renowned biomedical research centre dedicated to the study of infectious diseases, with a particular focus on diseases affecting Africa is also involved in the research and development of vaccines against various infectious diseases. The institute is building the region’s capacity to fight future pandemics and meet Africa’s more routine immunisation needs. However, more needs to be done to drive the process and achieve the goal.
Challenges to overcome
Africa accounts for a significant share of the world’s cases of infectious diseases, placing a disproportionate burden on the continent.
By promoting local African-led innovation in vaccine production, the continent is better positioned to be self-sufficient. Strengthening collaboration between member states to address infrastructure gaps in areas such as electricity supply, transportation, becomes essential to the establishment and maintenance of manufacturing facilities.
Acknowledging the importance of partnerships, at the 3rd International Conference on Public Health in Africa, His Excellency Dr Jean Kaseya, Director General of the Africa Centre for Disease Control, said ‘’African nations lack the infrastructure for production and technical know-how hence, we must create a robust ecosystem that can produce vaccines and other medical products to cater to the needs of the continent in a harmonised way.’ Vaccine manufacturing requires significant investment in research and development.
This was a key subject raised at the conference, as delegates emphasised the importance of adequate funding for research and development in order to create a conducive environment for innovation. Significant investments in research and development can be driven by collaborations between governments, the private sector, and international partners.
Another crucial point is regulation. It is imperative to streamline regulatory processes across African countries, promoting cross-border collaboration and facilitating the movement of medical products. Harmonised standards ensure that locally manufactured goods meet international quality benchmarks.
Africa Vaccinating ‘Africa’
The United Nations projects that Africa’s population will reach close to 2.5 billion, by 2050. It is therefore essential to consider how the African continent will be able to vaccinate its growing population by ensuring that the vaccine production agenda is aligned to the needs of the African population. While it is appropriate to focus priorities on the research and development of vaccine production, assuring vaccine demand and distribution should also be an important priority.
During the plenary session, Ms Shingai Machingaidze, Ag. Chief Science Officer, Senior Science Officer, Africa Centre for Diseases Control, also emphasised that Africa should take the lead in investing in vaccine development for diseases like Lassa Fever and Chikungunya because they are more prevalent within the continent.
‘’These diseases are found in our countries, this means our governments, our researchers, our scientists must be the ones to prioritise vaccine production. A lot of the time we are waiting for someone externally to come and help us solve a problem that we have that they don’t have.’’ Machingaidze said.
The quest to protect Africa from vaccine-preventable diseases received a significant boost when Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance pledged $1.8 billion to strengthen Africa’s efforts in vaccine manufacturing. Africa CDC welcomed the announcement from the Gavi Board for the establishment of the African Vaccine Manufacturing Accelerator (AVMA) a financing mechanism aimed at creating a sustainable vaccine manufacturing industry in Africa. This support will enable African countries to meet the vaccine manufacturing goals by 2040, decrease reliance on other countries for vaccines and safeguard the continent against future pandemics and disease outbreaks.
The way forward
The time for Africa to begin developing vaccines for Africa is now. In an Interview at the CPHIA, Prof. Abderrahmane Maaroufi, Director, Institut Pasteur Maroc (National Public Health Institute), identified four important pillars for African vaccine manufacturing:
1. Political commitment: Political commitment from health policymakers across different member states is crucial, as they play a pivotal role in mobilising local manufacturers and firms. This will enable efficient Public-Private Partnerships for local manufacturing, where the member state, as the leader, mobilises the demand, supply, and use of locally produced vaccines. In Morocco, for instance, a significant percentage of vaccines is supplied by the Ministry of Health, representing the public sector. Driving demand lies within the public sector synchronising both the public and private sector.
2. Capacity building: Capacity building in Africa should focus on enhancing human competencies in vaccine and health product manufacturing. A skilled workforce is key to driving these initiatives. Therefore, training and developing competent professionals should also include establishing platforms and infrastructure capable of supporting manufacturing activities across the continent.
3. Effective regulation: Establishing a robust regulatory system with high standards and rules is crucial to ensure the production of high-quality products and build trust in locally manufactured items among the population.
4. Sustained funding: Significant funding is essential for vaccine manufacturing, making local resource mobilisation crucial. One effective mechanism to facilitate and attract local investment is through Public-Private Partnerships.
As the vaccine manufacturing landscape continues to evolve, it is crucial for African leaders to engender policies that promote knowledge sharing, technological transfer and collaboration between high-income countries, (HIC) and lower-middle-income countries (LMIC) with regards to health security and vaccine manufacturing.
Africa can redefine its global health role by leading in local vaccine, diagnostics, and therapeutics manufacturing, through strategic investments, partnerships, and innovation. This would strengthen the continent’s ability to build a robust healthcare system and ensure health security.