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Vaccine R&D and manufacturing in Africa: Execution has started!

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ARTHUR MUTAMBARA

I AM currently in Nigeria, as part of a team setting up a vaccine research and development (R&D) and manufacturing plant.

This is proof of concept (a national launch pad) for a continental strategy to achieve equitable and universal access to essential vaccines and vaccination across Africa.

Health security determines national security. A health insecure Africa has no continental security. The public health of Africans cannot be left to depend on the benevolence and goodwill of nations external to the continent.

The journey to vaccine sovereignty and self-sufficiency has just begun. The target is not just Covid-19, but future pandemics and other diseases such as Malaria, HIV and Aids and sickle cell anaemia. Covid-19 was a wake-up call for the continent. Never again should Africa be this exposed and vulnerable.

Indeed, a crisis is too important an opportunity to waste.

As Africans, we must seize the moment and collectively take charge of our public health.

A broader issue is breaking Africa’s overdependence on donors in public health. How can this be done?

African countries must spend 15% of gross domestic  product on public health (the Abuja Declaration). There must be enhanced private sector participation in healthcare provision.

Governments must create an enabling environment for private sector involvement.

Yes, we must carry out R&D and manufacturing of medicines on the continent.

However, there must be clarity on and quantification of the return on investment (ROI) for the R&D & manufacturing of medicines in Africa.

We must leverage African economies of scale.

Africans must be able to sell medicines (developed and manufactured on the continent)0 globally. There is need to challenge the global public health political economy.

African funding of public health gives Africans control of public health policy, for example, emphasis on preventative medicine (wellness) as opposed to curative medicine (disease management).

Yes, breaking the African public health overdependence on donors is virtuous and can be done. As we push for pharmaceutical R&D and manufacturing in Africa, we are looking beyond Covid-19.

The Covid-19 pandemic was a major wake-up call for the continent. We now know the extent of the fragility of our healthcare systems and their overdependence on external players.

It might be too late for us to develop our own Covid-19 vaccines. Probably, the most we can do is manufacture these vaccines using other folks’  active pharmaceutical ingredients (API), if they let us, which is very unlikely.

As a long-term solution, we are focused on attaining vaccine sovereignty and self-sufficiency on the continent. Our goal is never to allow ourselves to be this vulnerable and exposed. Never ever.

As explained earlier, our targets are future pandemics and other infectious diseases such as malaria, HIV and Aids and sickle cell anaemia.

As we implement a continental and pan-African vaccine strategy (starting with an R&D and manufacturing plant in Nigeria), we do not expect any support from the Global North and its big pharmaceutical companies. We will succeed in spite of their disposition.

There is potential to unlock synergies with vaccine-producing countries in the Global South (such as China, India, Russia, Cuba and Brazil) by way of lessons learnt, partnerships and collaborations.

The long-term continental vaccine strategy is just but one aspect of asserting African agency in public health.
*About the writer: Professor Mutambara is former Deputy Prime Minister of Zimbabwe.

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