AFRICA SHOULD MANUFACTURE ITS OWN VACCINES
Rajendra Aneja urges the continent to develop a road map to produce a billion jabs in 18 months
The continent of Africa, comprising of 54 countries and a population of 1.3 billion has inoculated only about two percent of its people with the Covid-19 vaccine. Africa was principally depending on the COVAX programme supplies, backed by WHO and other multilateral bodies. COVAX had planned to source the AstraZeneca vaccine from Serum Institute of India. The goal was to supply 600 million doses to Africa to vaccinate 20 percent of the population in 2021. However, due to the crisis in India, the supplies have been suspended till end-2021. So, it could be the end-2022, before Africa vaccinates its people.
Africa cannot be left to fend for itself. According to the BBC, “Globally, 150 doses of the vaccine have been administered per 1,000 people, but in sub-Saharan Africa it’s about eight doses per 1,000 people.”
The extra doses with some of the richer countries can be diverted to countries in Africa with high infections. This will contribute to ridding a weary world of Covid-19 and kickstart economies.
The former British Prime Minister Mr. Gordon Brown has written a brilliant article (Financial Times, 22 May), advocating that “G7 must bear the burden of vaccinating the world.” According to him, “If the cost of vaccines is in billions, the overall benefits of additional economic output made possible as trade resumes in a Covid-free world are in trillions.” True. Investments by the Western nations in Africa on the vaccination, will pay rich dividends in terms of resumption of trade. The article should be assimilated by every President and Prime Minister in the world. His advice should be heeded. This pandemic overrules geographical, national, religious, tribal, caste, creed boundaries. As long as there is a single country with the disease, the world is not safe. We have to act together. To quote President John Kennedy, from his Inaugural address of 1961, “United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures.”
Africa produces just one percent of the vaccines it administers. The balance 99 percent are imported through international agencies like UNICEF, etc. Now, Africa finds itself neglected.
Africa should aim to produce vaccines locally and ensure self-sufficiency. Covid-19 has taught us, that during a global pandemic, despite the best intentions, vaccines do not move freely across nations. In a crisis, every nation is for itself.
Africa has 10 manufacturing plants for vaccines, based in Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa, Tunisia, Nigeria, etc. They are principally fill, finish, package and label units. They do not engage in upstream research or production of the vaccines. Nevertheless, four of these, Pasteur Institute of Dakar, Pasteur Institute of Tunis, Biovac Institute in Cape Town and the Pasteur Institute of Algeria, do have some capability to manufacture the substance from which vaccines are made. The Ethiopia Public Health Institute and Biovaccines Nigeria Limited, have some plans to manufacture vaccine materials, according to a study sponsored by the UK Government.
President Biden has signalled that the USA will support the waiver of Intellectual Property protections, on life saving Covid-19 vaccines. The European Union should also support the initiative to share vaccine technologies across the world. This is no time to be sclerotic. An IP waiver will accelerate the manufacture of vaccines in Africa.
African Union leaders must architect an urgent road-map to produce Covid-19 vaccines within 18 to 24 months. These plants can also produce vaccines to immunise for childhood diseases and provide for future outbreaks of infections.
Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) plans to establish five new vaccine-manufacturing centres across the continent. They will manufacture 60 percent of Africa’s requirements by 2040. However, this is too little, too late. Vaccines normally take a decade to discover. However, the world has over a dozen vaccines to fight Covid-19 within a year. Given the human will, the factories too can be accelerated.
Even a small research institute can discover lifesaving vaccines. Dr. Waldemar Haffkine was a Ukrainian scientist, who had discovered the vaccine for Cholera in 1892 in Paris. His Cholera vaccine was widely used in Russia and India.
Later, an epidemic of bubonic plague struck Bombay city (now Mumbai). The Indian government asked Dr. Haffkine to work on the vaccines. He laboured in a makeshift laboratory in the corridors of the Grant Medical College, Bombay. In about three months, he developed a vaccine. He tested it on himself in January, 1897. The vaccine had remarkable results and was deployed to fight the plague.
So, great oak trees can grow from small acorns. Some small institutes in Africa may produce miracles, given the faith and opportunity.
Africa has many rich industrialists. They have established businesses in Africa in a range of industries like infrastructure, media, consumer products, etc. African entrepreneurs should establish vaccine factories in Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya. These countries have large populations and trained manpower. The plants should be fully integrated, researching, discovering and producing the drugs. They should not be small filling plants.
An industrialist like Mr. Aliko Dangote has established himself admirably in assorted infrastructure projects and consumer products in Nigeria and across Africa. He could render a great service to West Africa by establishing a vaccine plant in Nigeria. The project could be accelerated to produce vaccines in 18 to 24 months.
The new projects could be managed jointly by the private and public sectors in the countries. The UK is establishing a new vaccine unit at a cost of about 100 million GBP. This type 0f money is not difficult to invest for the senior industrialists of Africa. The national governments of these countries, World Health Organisation (WHO), European Union, African Union Trust, Global Alliance for Vaccines (GAVI), can contribute with grants and soft loans.
Africa should become self-sufficient in vaccines. It should establish vaccine factories within 18 to 24 months to produce a billion jabs. Then, Africa can even export vaccines. It is doable with the right management. Then, Africa’s children will have a brighter future.
Aneja was the Managing Director of Unilever Tanzania. He is an alumnus of Harvard Business School and the author of books entitled, “Rural Marketing across Countries and “Business Express”. He is a Management Consultant