Now is the moment to launch an African vaccine industry

The continent plans to make 60 per cent of its vaccines by 2040. After the failure of the world to help in the pandemic, it’s high time, says Ngozi Erondu.

The World Today Published 3 August 2022 Updated 27 October 2022 2 minute READ

The lack of an African vaccine industry has been a glaring concern for decades. Before the pandemic, 99 per cent of Africa’s vaccines were manufactured outside the continent. As well as endangering the lives of millions, this situation has inhibited social and economic progress on the continent.

In response, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) has undertaken an ambitious plan, outlined in the Partnerships for African Vaccine Manufacturing (PAVM) Framework for Action, to develop the nascent African vaccine manufacturing sector into an end-to-end industry by 2040. The framework aims to raise the share of African-manufactured vaccines used across the continent to 60 per cent by 2040, or the equivalent to up to 1.7 billion doses annually.

Seven of every 10 vaccines used in Africa are currently donated through Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Most are administered within childhood immunization programmes and are largely manufactured either in India, or by  multinational vaccine manufacturers in North America or Japan.

Vaccine donations have inhibited the development in Africa of vaccines and other countermeasures against diseases.

Though the Ebola virus was discovered in Central Africa in 1976, vaccine development was not adequately funded until it emerged in Europe in 2014. Human monkeypox resurfaced in Nigeria in 2017, yet the global Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations only targeted it for vaccine development in July this year.

The pandemic highlighted Africa’s fatal dependency on imported vaccines. Only 20 per cent of Africans are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, due to the failure of countries in the Global North to ensure the equitable distribution of vaccines via the COVAX facility to 40 per cent of the world’s most vulnerable people. 

The pandemic also confirmed that Africa could not rely on fellow states of the Global South. At the height of the Delta variant outbreak in early 2021, India halted vaccine exports to Africa, where only 1.5 per cent of the population had at that time received any vaccine doses.

After decades of discussions, there are signs that Africa could soon succeed in creating its own vaccine industry. First, the 55-member African Union is in the process of establishing the African Medicines Agency, a regional regulatory body. 

‘The new public health order’

Additionally, the African Export-Import Bank and African Development Bank (AfDB) have established a foundation to provide financial and strategic support for the development of the pharmaceutical industry and the consolidation of regional vaccination programmes in Africa (the foundation would potentially negotiate intellectual property rights and licensing issues but that remains to be seen).

Second, studies show there is an emerging middle class in Africa. In a 2011 report by the AfDB, this was estimated at some 56 million households. Potentially, this means many people will be able to buy vaccines and medicines made in Africa.

About a third of African countries currently pay for their vaccine needs. According to PAVM forecasts, the value of the total African market could reach between $3 billion and $17 billion by 2040.

The recent entry into effect of the African Continental Free Trade Area should also prove conducive to African vaccine development. Through economic integration, free movement and harmonized regional standards, countries that invest in their biopharmaceutical and medical technology sectors may attract employees, regional and international businesses, and investment. Further, the pandemic has encouraged people to relocate to countries with, or planning for, universal healthcare.

Building an African pharmaceutical industry from the ground up could take much longer than two decades and cost tens of billions of dollars. Nevertheless, the moment seems ripe, and timely support has been forthcoming from influential regional actors, including Rwandan President Paul Kagame, South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, and private sector business executives, including the Zimbabwean-born billionaire Strive Masiyiwa.

With a pandemic treaty embedding equity in prevention, preparedness and response some way off, and given the limitations surrounding the recent World Trade Organization compromise on the TRIPS waiver – which temporarily waives Covid-19 vaccine patent protections for poorer countries – it is doubly important for Africa to build up its own pharmaceutical industry and emergency systems. 

With a pandemic treaty some way off, it is important for Africa to build up its own pharmaceutical industry 

In 2021, John Nkengasong, then director of Africa CDC, wrote of the necessity of a post-pandemic ‘new public health order’ for Africa. Such a change may threaten the global health organizations, industries and institutes who derive payment from ‘saving Africa’ during emergencies. Additionally, through strengthening Africa CDC, other actors such as the World Health Organization may find that they have a diminished strategic role on the continent.
While Africa should not dismiss these valuable and long-standing partnerships, it must take the opportunity to advance its interests and to assume leadership in this important area.