Africa needs to leap forward in funding vaccine technology, research

Updated: Feb 10, 2021

February 9, 2021 / 15.30 PM --

  • Between 70%-90% of pharmaceuticals used in Africa are still imported

  • Less than 1% of vaccines used across Africa manufactured within the continent

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed Africa’s inadequate capabilities and capacity to manufacture, supply essential drugs and personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to curb the disease. The crisis has exposed longstanding fragilities in Africa’s health systems, including gaps in healthcare personnel, infrastructure, supplies, equipment, and data systems.

Vaccine production in Africa has largely failed to launch. In general manufacturers within the continent currently produce less than 1% of the vaccines that are used across the continent. According to some reports, many manufacturers ceased production over the last 25 years due to the inability to compete with imported vaccines.

Shabir Madhi, Professor of Vaccinology at Witwatersrand University, South Africa, said Africa has not invested enough in developing its own COVID-19 vaccines. Professor Madhi said the continent is unfortunately faced by the consequence of poor funding in the field of science, resulting in it being last on the queue.

“The failure is not only on the side of government but on the side of academia and the private sector as well. It's not useful to start throwing a lot of money to researchers when a crisis is upon you, planning is what needs to take place," he added.

Professor Madhi who is also the Director of the South Africa Medical Research Council’s Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics Research Unit, and leads the South African Ox1Cov-19 Vaccine VIDA-Trial said investment in the part of vaccines is nominal in the entire continent.

“It is for this reason that Africa finds itself at the mercy of other countries and manufactures,” the professor said.

African universities are central to ensuring acceptance of vaccines in the continent as they are well-placed to lobby national governments and their immediate communities.

Can Africa set up its own manufacturing capabilities?

The COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to tip the scales in favor of accelerating local vaccine production in Africa.

There are calls for African universities to join forces with the pharmaceutical industry and funding organizations to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines in the continent.

Between 70%-90% of pharmaceuticals used in Africa are still imported. Local manufacturing sectors are poised with latent capacity, and bolstering local production is being urgently prioritized by the continent in the face of COVID-19 related shortages.

Africa Centres for Disease Control (Africa CDC) has identified and is working with eight companies in Africa that may be able to help manufacture COVID-19 vaccines, particularly if booster shots are needed on an ongoing basis. These companies could serve as sites for future vaccine production across Africa.

The Biovac Institute, a Cape Town-based joint venture between the government and private sector, could produce up to 30 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines per year, depending on the technology involved, Chief Executive Morena Makhoana recently told Reuters.

According to Johannesburg-based medical analyst, Dr. Sibusiso Nguse, in the face of this global shortfall, there are calls to scale up vaccine production capacity in the continent that is growing louder. Dr. Sibusiso said major barriers faced by the continent include a fragmented vaccine market, high cost of production, the complexity of manufacturing, and absence of political will to invest.