Editor’s note: This article was published in May 2021, and has been updated regularly to reflect the changing situation for vaccine production capacity in Africa.
It's incredible that it took a deadly pandemic for the world to notice that Africa has low vaccine-producing capabilities. But finally the conversations have begun and planning is underway to ramp up those capabilities, particularly following the continent’s persistent struggle to secure enough COVID-19 vaccines for its people.
While most African countries have been dependent on the World Health Organisation backed-COVAX Facility for COVID-19 vaccines, this and other plans will not be enough to make sure that the continent is adequately protected from the coronavirus. What’s more is the fact that the continent cannot make any other vaccines or pharmaceutical products, meaning that it is ill-prepared for potential future pandemics and public health threats.
This ignited a discussion on whether Africa would be able to manufacture its own vaccines — and slowly the discussion has been turning into action.
Watching wealthy nations selfishly stockpile vaccine doses, and then seeing the strain that the Serum Institute of India experienced in 2021 attempting to produce millions of vaccines for its home country and the rest of the world, was a clear indication that Africa needs to gain self-sufficiency in its vaccine production.
Richer countries that have vaccine production capabilities are the most likely to recover sooner from COVID-19 and other potential pandemics. Vaccine producing countries such as the UK and the US are far ahead in their COVID-19 vaccination targets, successfully having administered booster shots and considering a second round of boosters if necessary, while Africa as a continent has only vaccinated 15% of its 1.3 billion population.
These instances have highlighted the need for Africa to be able to produce its own vaccines and medication, begging the question, what capacity does the continent have to do so? And what can be done to improve this capacity?
5 Key Facts Everyone Should Know About Africa’s Vaccine Production Capacity
- Africa currently imports 99% of its vaccines.
- Just five of Africa’s 54 countries have the facilities to produce vaccines.
- By 2040 the Africa CDC hopes to establish five new vaccine manufacturing sites.
- Fewer than 10 countries are self-sufficient in terms of vaccine procurement.
- Plans to produce the continent's very first vaccine hub, in South Africa, are underway.
What Is Africa’s Capacity to Make Its Own Vaccines?
Africa currently produces just 1% of its vaccines, however it’s not far away from being able to produce more of its own pharmaceutical products. While Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa, and Tunisia are home to the continent’s 10 vaccine manufacturing facilities, the current vaccine production capacity has mainly been focused on supplying internally to each country, with very little export taking place.
These facilities have taken decades to be at a place where they can produce safe and effective medication, and even still, mostly produce vaccines that are packaging-formulated and imported from abroad such as aspirin and childhood vaccines. For instance, while South Africa produces COVID-19 vaccines, they’re not produced from scratch in the country. The vaccine itself is made overseas, leaving the country’s manufacturing facilities to put it into vials and package for distribution
However, the development of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, which uses mRNA technology — where rather than producing antibodies that prevent us from getting sick as traditional vaccines do, it teaches our cells to create proteins that prompt an antibody response — has given the continent hope that it can build more vaccine production facilities sooner rather than later.
This is because traditionally, vaccines have had to have been produced in specialised facilities. However, Moderna produced its mRNA vaccine partly in what used to be an abandoned film factory in the US, which was transformed into a vaccine production site in just a few months. The mRNA technology used in the vaccine also requires bioreactors (the key infrastructure for making vaccines) a fraction of the size needed for traditional vaccine production.
What all of this means is that, should Africa decide to produce mRNA vaccines — which it is already planning on doing, we’ll get to that in a moment — it could construct facilities relatively quickly.
The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the African Union have also heard the call for the production of the continent’s own vaccines and have put in place a plan to increase vaccine capacity from 1% to 60% in the next 20 years. While not an immediate solution for the current COVID-19 pandemic, it will help to prepare the continent for future public health scares.
How Is Africa Planning to Produce More Vaccines?
The two most important things that African countries need in order to increase vaccine production capacity on the continent are capital and technology and information transfers from pharmaceutical companies, so that African countries will not need to rely on third parties to make their own vaccines.
On capital, the US could afford to financially back the Moderna jab’s production (which cost upwards of $210 million), in exchange for the right to control exports of the vaccine. African countries may not be able to afford the same luxury.
African leaders started to strongly consider going down the mRNA vaccine production route mid-2021, with Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame confirming that he had been in discussions with an unnamed producer, and Moderna’s CEO, Stéphane Bancel, confirming that he had met with several African leaders about the potential of a Moderna plant in Africa.
However, there was no word on whether these discussions would have led to the countries being self-sufficient in producing these vaccines, meaning that they would have the right to patent information and technology transfer to make them from scratch on African soil.
A more promising venture is the mRNA technology transfer hub, which is already underway and kicked off research at the end of 2021. The hub is based in Cape Town, South Africa, and will produce vaccines, sharing essential production information with five other selected African countries so that they can do the same.
This is what the WHO is calling the hub and spoke model. The hub is based in South Africa and will have researchers and scientists from Afrigen Biologics, which will aim to create the mRNA vaccine production technology; the South African Medical Research Council, which will provide the necessary research; and South African vaccine producer, Biovac, which will be the first manufacturer on the continent of said vaccine.
Once this process is complete, the hub will share know-how and licensing information with five other vaccine-producing countries across the continent — the spokes of the hub and spoke model. These countries were announced in early 2022, and include Egypt, Senegal, Kenya, Tunisia, and Nigeria.
South Africa has another investment in the vaccine production game that was announced and launched in early 2022.
Biotech companies NantWorks and ImmunityBio launched a vaccine manufacturing and research facility in the country in January 2022, with the owner of the companies, South African-born billionaire, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong promising the "next generation" of vaccines.
The technology of these jabs will be different to that of existing COVID-19 vaccines, and according to the companies, has already been developed and began its trial phase in September 2021. The hope is that the NantWorks vaccine can be taken independently, or on top of any other previously received coronavirus vaccines, and will work to improve immunity against the virus using the body’s T cells (defensive white blood cells). You can read more about the Nantworks vaccine in our article here.
Looking at the Africa CDC’s plans to establish new vaccine manufacturing centres in the next 20 years, current predictions show that it’ll cost an estimated $400 million to invest in the technology needed to produce at least two manufacturing sites.
The African Development Bank has committed to help with funding the technology needed for two centres, but this will not be enough to reach the Africa CDC’s hope for five new centres overall.
There is currently no publicly available information on what more capital it will take and what skills are outstanding in the journey to building more vaccine production plants.
Current vaccine producers also need to be willing to share their knowledge with new producers on the continent. The mRNA hub and spoke model based in South Africa was designed to get around having to wait for current producers to share information, however, dealing with the current pandemic would be quicker and more effective if Africa had access to existing knowledge, licensing, and technology. However, currently, no government that backs the production of COVID-19 vaccines, has the power to tell pharmaceutical companies to share their information with new producers.
This is why 100 countries are supporting the proposal of a waiver on COVID-19 vaccine patents, so that pharmaceutical companies can share their vaccine formulae, and doses can be easily and more affordably produced everywhere that they are needed.
This proposal was presented to the World Trade Organization by India and South Africa in 2020, and has yet to receive a thumbs up from the organization and all 164 of its member-states. If waiving the patents is approved, it could relieve the developing world of vaccine shortages and empower equitable distribution.
How Does This Relate to Ending Poverty?
During past health crises — as well as this one — people in Africa have had to wait for aid or imported medication in order to deal with health threats on the continent. This has the potential to slow down the eradication of threats such as COVID-19, and can cost African countries millions of lives, as well as the added cost of importing medicines and stabilising their economies.
The production of vaccines on African soil could make it easier and faster to treat and prevent diseases, so that the continent’s countries can recover from health crises a lot quicker.
This is essential in removing the barriers leading to Africa’s development towards the UN's Global Goals and the mission to end extreme poverty. According to the UN Economic Commission for Africa, Africa's development has fallen behind by up to five years due to the pandemic and vaccine inequity specifically.
How Can Global Citizens Help?
What African countries need immediately is COVID-19 vaccines. Global Citizens can take action here to call on wealthy nations to share the COVID-19 vaccines that they have hoarded with countries that need them most.
You can take action here to call on pharmaceutical leaders to support the mRNA vaccine hub in South Africa with access to technology, licensing, and information transfers.
This article was originally written in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a funding partner of Global Citizen.