For a while, Africa appeared to be losing the fight to build manufacturing capacity for the production of COVID-19 vaccines as big pharma and rich countries questioned African capacity to make its own vaccines.
Some international companies regard African self-sufficiency as a long-term risk to their business; some fear a loss of influence.
Greg Perry, assistant director general at the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, expressed doubt that Africa could become a drug manufacturing hub. “It is a very tall order to start looking at significant manufacturing on the continent,” Perry said.
This week, in a surprise move, the U.S. threw its support behind a move at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily lift patent protections for coronavirus vaccines, allowing developing countries to meet their own needs. In announcing the new policy, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said that “extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.”
One hundred of the WTO’s 164 states are said to be in favor of lifting patent protection, and a panel on intellectual property is expected to discuss the issue next month.
If approved, supporters say, the waiver could provide more affordable doses for less wealthy countries. Advocates of the move say it would increase global vaccine production of life-saving drugs.
Currently, African nations only produce 1% of the vaccines used on the continent, with scattered, limited capacity. A continent of 1.2 billion people should not have to import 99% of its vaccines, commented Nature magazine in a recent editorial.
Moussa Faki Mahamat, chair of the African Union Commission, warmly welcomed the U.S. announcement to support South Africa and India’s call for the temporary waiver of intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines.
“The chairperson commends this important show of global leadership by the United States of America, alongside more than 100 countries, to help end the most devastating global public health crisis in living memory,” he said.
“Increasing the manufacturing capacity for COVID-19 vaccines in Africa could help ensure that the continent doesn’t have to beg for vaccines when there is an outbreak,” said William Ampofo, chair of the African Vaccine Manufacturing Initiative.
But Africa still needs to bring on more health workers and supplies, such as personal protective equipment, to use the vaccines before they expire, said John Nkengasong of the Africa Centres for Disease Control. Only about 1,000 of the nearly two million vaccines sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo have been used so far, for example, and the expiration date is June 24.
Other obstacles to a timely roll-out are weak health services and a poor transport network, making the delivery of vaccines to remote areas a major issue.