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Dakar — Senegal could begin producing Covid-19 vaccines in 2022 under an agreement with Belgian biotech group Univercells, a move that would boost Africa’s drug-manufacturing ambitions, according to a source involved in funding the project.

As wealthy countries begin to reopen after securing vaccine supplies early, African nations are still struggling to acquire shots. On a continent of 1.3bn people, only about 7m have been fully vaccinated.

The collaboration highlights the opportunities created by a global push to channel money and technology towards production on a continent that makes only 1% of the vaccines it requires.

Univercells announced the signing of a letter of intent for collaboration with the Institut Pasteur in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, in April. The source shared details of the proposal, which were not made public.

Under the agreement, the Institut Pasteur would use vaccine production technology developed by Univercells to supply Covid-19 vaccines to countries across West Africa.

The institute would initially begin packaging and distributing vaccines produced by Univercells in Belgium early next year, the source said.

Univercells would transfer its full production line to Senegal in the second half of 2022, the source said, adding that the company would train local staff so they could eventually run the operation.

Univercells chief investment officer Kate Antrobus, when asked about the time frame for the project, confirmed that it could send doses to Senegal early in 2022.

Antrobus declined to comment on the exact date for a full vaccine production line in Senegal but of the timelines referenced she said: “I do not think they are unreasonable.”

Timing depends on Univercells securing regulatory approval for a vaccine production site in Belgium. Antrobus said that was expected “any day now”.

Institut Pasteur director Amadou Sall declined to comment on the timeline or size of the project, but said the facility was working with donors to secure financial backing.

“There is a lot of political will, I am optimistic. But it is not about momentum, it is about creating a real opportunity,” Sall said.

It is not clear yet what vaccine will be supplied to Senegal, but Antrobus said the site in Belgium would be able to manufacture a class of so-called viral vector Covid-19 vaccine, such as those developed by Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, Russia‘s Sputnik V and China’s Cansino.

“If Covid amazingly subsides over the next year ... that same capacity could be used for other viruses,” Antrobus said.

Univercells also has its own Covid-19 vaccine candidate, being developed with Germany’s Leukocare and Italian firm ReiThera, which has completed Phase II trials. It is seeking financing to carry out Phase III, which the Italian government said it is ready to fund.

300m doses next year

Senegal’s Institut Pasteur is the only facility in Africa producing a vaccine — a yellow fever shot — that is pre-qualified by the World Health Organisation, which requires manufacturers to meet strict international standards.

Pre-qualification allows facilities to supply to major buyers such as the UN children’s agency Unicef.

Donors including the US and the EU are lining up to help fund an expansion at the institute to incorporate Covid-19 vaccines, the source said.

A call by the institute for an initial $10m  in funding has been over-subscribed, the source said.

A UK government-funded cost analysis conducted for the Institut Pasteur, seen by the same source, estimates the project would cost $200m, based on its aim to produce 300m doses of Covid-19 vaccine by the end of 2022.

Financing will depend on the institute having committed buyers. According to the cost analysis, the project would be commercially viable if it produced vaccines other than Covid-19, so it can keep functioning after the pandemic.

Strategic plan

Africa’s struggles to secure vaccine supplies has exposed its vulnerability to health crises and pushed governments to find ways to boost medicine and vaccine production.

Those efforts are now gaining traction with wealthy countries.

The EU said last month that it will invest at least €1bn to build manufacturing hubs in Africa, with Senegal, SA, Rwanda, Morocco and Egypt among the leading candidates.

SA’s Biovac Institute said it has contacted the French and German governments and pharmaceutical companies with the aim of producing 30m Covid-19 vaccines annually.

SA company Aspen Pharmacare is already producing shots of the J&J vaccine locally.

The EU plan, in co-ordination with the AU, aims to bolster drugs regulators in Africa, train Africans in the skills needed to expand the pharmaceuticals industry, and support businesses producing materials and components.

The plan will look at countries that “can move quickly, and which have the political capital to drag that forward,” said John Nkengasong, the director of Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Africa's $1.3bn vaccine market could rise to as high as $5.4bn by 2030 because of population growth and the availability of new vaccines, US-based consultancy McKinsey said in an April report.

There is still a long way to go, experts say.

Besides financing, governments and regulators need to make it easier for technology to be transferred to Africa, and to reduce risk through public-private partnerships.

“These are really mid to long-term goals, so you’re looking at one to two years minimum,” said Chema Triki of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. “It’s not just about Covid. Africa needs to be ready for the next pandemic.”


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