Over one year after the first COVID-19 vaccine was given, deep vaccine inequity persists globally. Today, only 12 percent of people living in low-income countries have received a dose of COVID-19 vaccine compared to 62 percent of the world’s population as a whole.
1.8 billion people in low-and low-and-middle-income countries (LMICs) have yet to receive their first dose of vaccines.
This reveals the critical need for a globally distributed manufacturing capacity to decrease reliance of most of the world on just a few countries for vaccines.
Currently, Africa imports about 99 percent of the vaccines it uses. This makes the continent highly vulnerable during a pandemic when the whole world needs vaccines at the same time and countries that manufacture vaccines have to prioritise their own populations
Currently, Africa imports about 99 percent of the vaccines it uses. This makes the continent highly vulnerable during a pandemic when the whole world needs vaccines at the same time and countries that manufacture vaccines have to prioritise their own populations. The COVID-19 pandemic clearly revealed this, and if these issues are not tackled, it would happen again the next time the world faces a pandemic.
Africa, therefore, needs to be proactive and concerted efforts must be made to increase local vaccine production on the continent as establishing sustainable vaccine manufacturing capacity in Africa is vital to the continent’s health security.
Challenges confronting sustainable local vaccine manufacturing in Africa
The challenges in strengthening Africa’s local vaccine manufacturing capacity cannot be underestimated. Vaccine manufacturing is a complex endeavour that requires much more than just building a factory. For local vaccine manufacturing in Africa to be sustainable, it must be established within an enabling ecosystem.
Sustainable local vaccine manufacturing requires the availability of a trained and skilled workforce; predictable and sustainable financing (including market access); access to know-how (the core technologies of vaccine production); reliable supply chains; and experienced regulatory authorities. These must be strengthened alongside the construction of actual manufacturing facilities.
However, progress is already being made to tackle these challenges in Africa, particularly with the support of the World Health Organisation (WHO). The WHO and its partners have established a global technology transfer hub for mRNA vaccines in Afrigen, Cape Town, South Africa. The goal of this initiative is for manufacturers from LMICs to receive the training and licenses to manufacture vaccines locally and technology transfer.
Also, the WHO has announced that the first six African countries that will receive technology from the technology transfer hub to produce their own mRNA vaccines are Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia.
Nigeria as a case study
In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Health has been making more concrete efforts to strengthen Nigeria’s capacity for sustainable local vaccine manufacturing. In line with the WHO’s mandate to provide guidance to member states on health policy matters and developing evidence-based immunisation policy recommendations, the Federal Ministry of Health developed and launched the Nigeria Vaccine Policy.
The aim is to achieve vaccine availability, self-sufficiency, and overall security through local production and ownership of supply chains. It is worth mentioning that Bloom Public Health played a key role in this achievement by providing technical support for the project. Bloom Public Health was actively involved in all stages of this project, from conception to the launch of the policy.
Furthering these achievements, the minister of health of the Federal Ministry of Nigeria, Osagie Ehanire, has recently inaugurated the Inter-Ministerial Steering Committee and Technical Working Group Committee on Local Vaccine Manufacturing in Nigeria. The constitution and inauguration of the Technical Working Group (TWG) Committee for local vaccine manufacturing in Nigeria will further strengthen Nigeria’s capacity for sustainable local vaccine manufacturing by providing support and an enabling working environment for the WHO in the mRNA technology transfer for vaccine development and manufacturing in Nigeria. It is also noteworthy that Bloom Public Health was among the organizations inaugurated into the TWG Committee, along with other institutions including WHO, UNICEF, USAID etc.
Strategies to strengthen capacity for sustainable local vaccine manufacturing in Africa
In view of these, key strategy that must be adopted to strengthen Africa’s capacity for sustainable local vaccine manufacturing include:
1. Increasing access to know-how and workforce capacity: As mentioned above, the WHO is addressing this through the mRNA training hub, which provides the necessary know-how and human capital training to enable countries to build capacity for rapid production of vaccines and biological products. Effort should be made by several countries to take ownership of this project and secure a pipeline of talents for vaccine manufacturing in Africa.
2. Sustainable financial investment in local vaccine manufacturing: Given that vaccine manufacturing is highly capital intensive, African governments must invest more and explore public-private partnerships to ensure predictable and sustainable financing. Also, guaranteed market access is another way to incentivize investment in local vaccine manufacturing.
3. Building regulatory capacity: To ensure strict compliance to quality standards across the vaccine value chain, African governments must invest in the strengthening of their MRAs to meet the WHO Global Benchmarking Tool (GBT) Maturity Level 3 or 4. A feat that has been achieved by only Ghana, Tanzania, Egypt and Nigeria.
African governments must capitalise on political will, practical experience, and technical and scientific progress emerging from the pandemic to strengthen local vaccine manufacturing and be better prepared for any future pandemic.
Anyakora is the CEO of Bloom Public Health and a public health expert and
Odibeli is a pharmacist and the research and communications coordinator at Bloom Public Health