FARRAH LOSPER: Africa’s vaccine-making success hinges on nurturing existing capabilities
Africa needs to ensure that it is never again in the position that it was during the Covid-19 pandemic
“The next pandemic could already be among us, and climate change means no country is safe.”
Peter Sands, executive director of the Global Fund, recently emphasised the interrelation between global health and climate change. The lasting scars of the Covid-19 pandemic on Africa are fresh, and it is thus critical that we look to the continent to be part of the solution as we prioritise pandemic preparedness and global health equity.
Despite multiple pressing global challenges, the Africa vaccine self-sufficiency agenda remains relevant. This is good news for biotechnology and industrialisation, and as a matter of health security in preparation for future pandemics. In the past month, I participated in two separate panels at global events, which highlighted the sustainability of African vaccine manufacturing and the triggers for investment.
At Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance’s mid-term review held in Madrid, Spain, more than 20 heads of state and ministers plus private sector innovators, civil society and the pharmaceutical industry gathered to assess the achievement of Gavi’s strategic goals, and renew its dedication to life-saving immunisations. Importantly, sustainability of African vaccine manufacturing within the context of pandemic preparedness featured strongly.
And at the end of June, the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), UN Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) and the African Vaccine manufacturers Initiative (AVMI) convened a high-level summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia attracting global stakeholders to focus on “enhancing the sustainability of investment for vaccine manufacturing in Africa”.
For Africa particularly, these events allowed an opportunity for reflection on what it will take for sustainable African vaccine manufacturing, as we journey towards the AU’s Partnerships for African Vaccine Manufacturing’s (PAVM) goal of securing 60% of the continent’s routine vaccine requirements from African manufacturers by 2040. Most importantly, we tackled what is needed to accelerate this journey and to ensure that we don’t build a continent of white elephants.
Dozens of encouraging and welcome announcements of investments on the continent into fill finish facilities, new technologies and innovative products have been made following the pandemic. We need to remain mindful, however, of the progress that’s already been made in our collective haste to mobilise and accelerate essential support for this sector, and see these investments over their last kilometres to independent commercial success.
In vaccine manufacturing, sustainability in its simplest form is linked to demand certainty. Sustainability requires long-term agreements with volume allocations of routine vaccines with existing demand. This leads to economies of scale and ultimately to cost competitiveness.
What Africa specifically needs for a sustainable vaccine manufacturing industry is the combination of three critical factors. First, Africa needs a diversity of ethical partnerships: we need technology transfer partners, development partners, funding partners, and procurer partnerships. These partners must value true investment in Africa’s potential for the long-haul and must be willing to take some risk. Second, we need an enabling ecosystem, in which talent and skills are developed, retained and rewarded, coupled with a regulatory reset that sensibly accelerates African manufacturers’ access to global procurement mechanisms, such as the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef). Finally, and rather critically, Africa needs a strategic approach to funding and support which looks to nurture, support and leverage existing infrastructures and capabilities, whilst at the same time looks to fill relevant gaps from a diseases-target or technology-platform perspective.
Three local SA stories firmly illustrate how much progress has been made, and serve as reminders of what could be lost should these existing capacities and capabilities be overlooked.
Biovac is a 20 year-old biopharmaceutical company formed together with the SA government that has built product development, formulation, fill and finish capabilities with international organisations for four vaccines over the last decade. These are with organisations such as Sanofi, Pfizer and the International Vaccines Institute (IVI) With each technology transfer from these organisations, Biovac has been able to transfer the necessary skills and technology significantly quicker than the previous one and have developed capabilities which simplify or enable the next. At Biovac we are now seeing the benefit: with these capabilities and our experience, we are developing a cholera vaccine in partnership with IVI and supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This vaccine is being developed and tested in SA for not only itself but for African and global markets.
Aspen is another local example. Existing fill and finish capacities were utilised for a Covid-19 vaccine and will be further utilised for routine vaccine production.
A third example, Afrigen, shows how innovation can be grown in SA through multilateral partnerships. They are developing mRNA technology with the support of the World Health Organisation, the Medicines Patent Pool among others. The intention is to share this technology with other companies on the continent and beyond.
Further afield on the continent, the Institut Pasteur de Dakar (IPD) in Senegal have existing capabilities and are setting themselves up as a centre of excellence from a skills perspective using their existing infrastructure and experience from their yellow fever vaccine production. Their intention is to train African scientists in the area of biotechnology. The IPD’s excellent foundations will be strategically bolstered by a raft of investments into expanding yellow fever and other vaccines production, plus support from the global community towards its manufacturing expansion.
The funding and support that the continent receives must protect and leverage these existing capabilities which have been built over decades. This support — funding, partnerships, and preferential procurement policies to provide demand certainty and stability — can result in accelerated capacity and capability building. Ultimately, it is the quickest way to achieve the goal of procuring 60% of the continent’s routine immunisations from the continent itself by 2040.
This is also the only way we will build capacities and capabilities for pandemic preparedness, so that we are never again in the position that we were during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Any discussion about accelerating the journey of African vaccine manufacturers towards long-term sustainability must be based on the fact that investment in Africa’s vaccine sovereignty and self-sufficiency translates to more than continental health security. It essentially means investment in global health equity.
• Losper is chief commercial officer at Biovac SA
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