Africa is running out of COVID-19 vaccines, prompting calls for the continent to develop its own manufacturing facilities so the continent less reliant on imports.
While most western countries have inoculated hundreds of thousands of their people, Africa continues to lag behind having administered just 2% of the world’s total COVID-19 vaccine doses, meaning the continent has vaccinated just 1% of the its population.
According to the Guardian, only a handful of sub-saharan African countries are confident that they will be able to vaccinate their healthcare workers this year, while others will potentially have to wait longer to receive a vaccine.
Rwanda, Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria have reported vaccine shortages that will impact the rollout to inoculate all their healthcare workers. Nigerian authorities were even told to stop administering first doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca two-dose vaccine once they had used up half of their stock in order to safeguard supply for the second dose.
Speaking at a conference on vaccine production on Monday hosted by the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ,South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, called for the continent to have its own vaccine manufacturing facilities to help ensure a smooth and speedy vaccine rollout for Africa.
"Africa needs to harness its own continental capabilities and identify opportunities for collaboration across... countries," he said.
He went on to explain how this could possibly work and noted that other countries "could offer technological expertise, financing and investment," pointing to Brazil and India for potential guidance as countries that have developed their own generic pharmaceutical industries.
Africa currently has just 10 manufacturing facilities located in five of its 54 countries, Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia. The vaccine capacity in these countries is not large enough to supply the entire continent, with each country concentrated on supplying to their own internal markets and very few are exporting doses.
At the same meeting, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame reiterated Ramaphosa’s point, and said that vaccine equity could not be guaranteed by “goodwill” alone.
"Africa needs to and should be capable of producing its own vaccines and medical products," Kagame said.
WHO Africa Regional Director Dr. Matshidiso Moeti said that the continent is falling further behind the rest of the world due to its slow vaccine rollout.
“Africa is already playing COVID-19 vaccination catch-up, and the gap is widening,” Dr. Moeti said. “While we acknowledge the immense burden placed by the global demand for vaccines, inequity can only worsen scarcity,” she added.
Vaccine nationalism has had a large part to play in Africa’s slow vaccine rollout and deepened inequity between countries, as richer countries continue to hoard more than enough vaccines for their populations while middle- and lower-income countries struggle to secure enough jabs for their people.
However the wait time for vaccines on the continent has increased as the Serum Institute of India — the world’s largest producer of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines — recently suspended the export of large shipments of the jab. African countries have been largely dependent on the COVAX Facility and the African Union’s own vaccine efforts for jabs thus far, as the institute is the largest supplier of vaccines for both facilities. and Africa has been largely dependent on both for the jabs thus far.
Dr. John Nkengasong, the director of the Africa CDC, said that this suspension could have a “catastrophic” impact if extended, as the AstraZeneca vaccine is the most affordable, and the easiest to store and transport, making it suitable to the needs of African countries.
Africa has since had to pivot in its rollout plan, as the African Union dropped the Oxford/Astrazeneca jab and secured 400 million vaccines from Johnson & Johnson.
These shots will be manufactured in South Africa, which has hosted J&J COVID-19 vaccine trials and is home to one of their manufacturing facilities, potentially simplifying delivery across the continent.
But South Africa has committed to this distribution and has been rolling out the J&J shots locally since February, Health Minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize announced in a statement on April 13 that the country will be pausing its use of the vaccine.
“We have determined to voluntarily suspend our rollout until the causal relationship between the development of clots and the Johnson and Johnson vaccine is sufficiently interrogated,” the statement said.
It is not clear how this suspension will affect South Africa’s commitment to producing and distributing J&J vaccines for the African Union. Should distribution to other African countries continue, it is estimated that the doses are unlikely to be available before June. Dr. Nkengasong said the continent would struggle to bridge that gap in the meantime.