COVID-19: Africa races to build capacity for meeting health security needs

Several African countries have signed deals with global manufacturers, distribution agencies to stregthen health infra internally

By Christophe Hitayezu
Published: Tuesday 21 December 2021
COVID-19: Africa races to build capacity to meet its health security needs Photo: iStock

The uncertainty around the new SARS-CoV-2 variant, omicron, proves that the pandemic is far from over, and immunisation with vaccines remains the most effective recommendation from health experts. 

But a capacity and demand analysis for Africa points out that the continent may not be equipped to deal with the enduring novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic yet. Efforts are on in the continent to bridge the gap locally, health experts have observed. 

Africa had received a total of 431 million doses of vaccines from other countries as of December 9, 244 million doses of which have been administered. This helped vaccinate 11 per cent of the population partially and a dismal 7.3 per cent fully. The numbers are far from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendation of vaccinating 70 per cent of people in every country by the mid-2022. 

The continent is also behind most major economies around the globe: China has fully vaccinated 75 per cent of its population, the European Union 71 per cent, the United States 68 per cent and India 40 per cent.

Africa needs 1.8 billion doses to vaccinate at least 900 million people (around 75 per cent of its total population). COVAX, a global collaboration to ensure equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, has committed to supply about 26 per cents of the needs while African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT) has secured 31 per cent, according to Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) figures, 

“We still have a gap of 13 per cent,” said John Nkengasong, director of Africa CDC.

At the first International Conference on Public Health in Africa held virtually from December 14-26, 2021, leaders and experts emphasised on the need for local manufacturing of health supplies. Nkengasong said: 

When this pandemic hit us, we had no access to diagnostics. We still have very limited testing capacity. As a continent of 1.2 billion people, we have limited access to vaccines. We have to begin to decrease our dependency for health security needs.

The fact that the continent is currently importing 90 per cent of its medical requirements, Matshidiso Moeti, regional director of WHO Africa, stressed the need for local production. “Research innovation and local manufacturing are central to a swift and effective health response,” she said. 

The pandemic also illustrated the need for strong connection and linkages between human resource capacities, communities, national public health institutions, scientists, innovators, financing institutions and international or multilateral institutions and platforms, the health expert added. 

The pandemic has created an opportunity to fundamentally change Africa’s pharmaceuticals production, Rwanda President Paul Kagame said at the opening session. He called for the implementation of Partnership for African Vaccine Manufacturing launched by the African Union April 2021. 

With political will, Africa’s dreams of manufacturing health supplies including vaccines is nearly becoming a reality, according to the continent’s public health experts. “There are now 12 COVID-19 vaccine production facilities set up or in the pipeline across six African countries,” said Nkengasong. 

BioNTech SE, a German pharmaceutical major that manufactures a widely used COVID-19 vaccine along with Pfizer Inc, signed an agreement with Rwanda and Senegal October 26, 2021, to produce mRNA vaccines. The company also planned to construct the continent’s first mRNA manufacturing facility in mid-2022, according to Africa CDC.

EU, US and several European governments signed an accord to finance vaccine production at the Institute Pasteur Dakar, Senegal. Morocco signed an agreement with the Swedish company Recipharm AB to establish and scale-up COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing capacity.

South Africa’s Biovac Institute and Afrigen Biologics & Vaccines, a network of universities signed an agreement with WHO, COVAX and Africa CDC to establish the first COVID-19 mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub in Africa. 

Egypt’s Holding Company for Biological Products & Vaccines SAE also signed two agreements with Sinovac Biotech, a Chinese biopharmaceutical company, for COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing in the country. 

Algeria announced production of the Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine in partnership with Russia, and part of the production is intended for African countries.

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