Africa is in a race against the clock to produce covid-19 vaccines. With the outrageous percentage of less than 3% of its immunized populationDue to a large extent to the hoarding of doses by rich countries and in a context of strong foreign dependence, several nations have proposed to achieve this capacity in a period of between two and four years, thinking about the coronavirus but also about future epidemics. South Africa is already the first African country to carry out one part of the process, the fill and finish (filling and finishing, the last manufacturing phases, specifically of Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson medicines), and Egypt, Morocco and Algeria intend to imitate the southern country this year, but to achieve vaccine sovereignty the idea is to manufacture them from the beginning at the end. And in this race there are two countries in the lead: South Africa itself and Senegal, although Rwanda intends to join the peloton. The time trial will be frantic and full of obstacles.
When the world began to get vaccinated against covid-19 last December, one thing became clear: poor countries were going to be left behind. Despite all their efforts, not even the public-private initiative Covax, launched by the United Nations and the World Health Organization, among others, has been able to reduce the gap. The problem goes far beyond this pandemic. 99% of vaccines administered in Africa come from abroad. Only a handful of countries have the capacity to produce them, and to achieve full manufacturing at the necessary scale this industry requires solid investments and strong public support.
Already in April, the African Union launched the challenge: by 2040 the continent must produce at least 60% of its vaccines. A quantum leap, a true revolution that begins with covid-19, but goes much further. In South Africa, with its president Cyril Ramaphosa leading this battle, they have the best foundations: Aspen Pharma company is already producing Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Fernando Albericio, a doctor in Organic Chemistry who works at the University of Kwazulu-Natal (Durban), explains that “this is one of the few countries in the world that has this capacity. Aspen Pharma is a company that has all the standards and credibility to produce vaccines under the patents of other pharmaceutical companies. And they will begin to be distributed before the end of the year ”.
“No company does the complete process of the vaccine”, adds the expert, “it is actually like a puzzle and the final finish is done in South Africa, which is essential because it shows its capacity. The important thing is to have access to vaccines. The production in South Africa is going to lower the cost because three or four euros, which for Europe can mean very little, in African countries it is money ”. However, the controversy has come with a recent investigation of The New York Times that reveals that a portion of the vaccines manufactured by Aspen Pharma in South Africa was being exported out of Africa. The pharmaceutical company imposed this condition in the contract to relocate part of its production.
These types of clauses would be avoided with a totally local manufacturing process. This is what the Biovac company aims to achieve, also in South Africa. Patrick Tippoo, the company’s head of Science and Innovation and executive director of the African Vaccine Manufacturing Initiative, says they are working towards the 2023 target. “There are two initiatives in which Biovac is involved. On the one hand, the agreement of filling and finishing with Pfizer whose production will be destined only to the African continent; and on the other, the WHO and Covax technology transfer center for the Covid mRNA vaccine [de ARN mensajero], which is a complete production: from its components to the product ”.
100 million doses
“The intention of South Africa is to have a complete management of the production of the vaccine, the substance and the drug product,” continues Tippoo, “as Aspen has already shown, the infrastructure exists and is working, many millions of doses have already been produced. at your facilities. At Biovac, the facilities are also set to have full capacity in 2023 with a production of 100 million doses per year. What must be built in the next six months is the infrastructure to store the vaccines, because the Pfizer vaccine needs to be at a temperature of minus 70 degrees ”.
In parallel, but at another end of the African continent, Senegal presented its initiative last July for the complete manufacture of a vaccine against covid-19. Under the initiative of President Macky Sall, with the accumulated experience of the Pasteur Institute of Dakar, a reference in the continent, and with the financial and technical support of the European Investment Bank, the American Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and the World Bank, the idea is to be the first. Work is already underway to prepare land granted by the State in Diamnadio, the new development pole of the Senegalese capital, and there is an agreement with a technology partner, the Belgian company Univercells. It is intended to have this infrastructure at full capacity in the record time of 18 months. Starting to manufacture the vaccine at the end of 2022 is a dream; 2023 seems like a more realistic goal.
In any case, the ambitious project has already started and also has funding from the European Commission, Germany and France. The first $ 26 million has already been disbursed. For now, and despite being a priority country in its cooperation strategy in Africa, Spain has not shown interest in participating. In the coming days, President Sall is scheduled to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin to discuss a possible deal with BioNTech, the company that developed Pfizer’s vaccine. Rwandan President Paul Kagame will also attend this meeting, who hopes that his country will also start manufacturing vaccines against covid-19 within a reasonable period of time.
Overcoming the refusal of pharmaceutical companies to suspend their patents is the last of the challenges. “Building a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine manufacturing capacity in Africa is absolutely possible,” says Lara Dovifat, director of the Médecins Sans Frontières Access Campaign. “Our analysis shows that at least seven manufacturers in African countries currently meet the prerequisites for producing mRNA vaccines, if all the necessary technology and training were openly shared.”