sergio pimenta

The private sector has a defining role to play in ramping up vaccine production in Africa.

Much has been made of how well Africa coped in 2020, as Covid-19 spread across the globe. With few exceptions, African governments took the threat seriously, acting quickly to implement social distancing and other measures. Tough decisions were made to protect lives, even as livelihoods were squeezed and millions slipped deeper into poverty.

Science’s triumph over the virus in the form of vaccines was the relief the world needed. Developed nations have already secured hundreds of millions of doses, and restaurants, bars and even sports stadiums are filling with life again. However, this is yet to happen in Africa — a continent of 1.3 billion people.

According to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a mere 4% of Africans had received their first dose of any Covid-19 vaccine as of mid-August. Numerous countries have vaccinated barely 0.5%, while some have not begun vaccinating at all. In June, much of the continent was battling a dreaded third wave of infections, with cases climbing for consecutive weeks.

Falling behind

So, why is Africa lagging so far behind with vaccinations?

Difficulty accessing overseas production, as governments worldwide scramble to secure doses for their own populations, is one of the challenges. Vaccine hesitancy and overwhelmed healthcare infrastructure within Africa are also compounding the continent’s struggles to inoculate and treat patients.

But so is a chronic dearth of domestic production. Africa produces only about 1% of all types of vaccines it uses, relying on imports for the rest. There are roughly 375 pharmaceutical manufacturers in Africa, mostly concentrated in north Africa, compared with 10,500 in India alone.

Africa faces a huge productivity gap compared with some other developing regions. For instance, Asian vaccine manufacturers boast long-established economies of scale, cold chain storage and distribution facilities, incentives from government and highly skilled workforces. Africa, by contrast, lacks a predictable, supportive and investor-friendly regulatory environment for producing vaccines and other medicines, with counterfeiters still rife on the continent.

Each of these issues must be addressed urgently, with the public and private sectors working in tandem. Developing a common certification system and supply chain platforms across large parts of Africa would also help draw investment and production to the continent.

Cause for optimism

Reassuringly, there are also good reasons to be optimistic, and private investors should note several existing factors that support vaccine production in Africa.

First, there is clear current demand and locked-in future demand. Africa’s population is expected to double by 2050. The continent’s increased global connectivity and urbanisation means its people will need vaccines for a variety of ailments, both known and as yet unknown. The management consulting firm McKinsey estimates that the public market for vaccines in Africa could rise from $1.3bn today to between $2.3bn and $5.4bn by 2030.

Second, there is the emergence of disruptive technology and swifter regulatory processes. Vaccine production using mRNA, coupled with the fast-track regulatory processes seen in the wake of Covid-19, are cutting the time needed to bring vaccines to market. This trend means that smaller players might more easily enter an industry that sometimes waits a decade or more to develop safe products for public use.

Finally, Africa itself has recognised the urgency of stepping up domestic vaccine production, with the African Union and Africa CDC recently announcing an ambition for Africa to manufacture 60% of its vaccine needs by 2040.

Achieving mass vaccination

Boosting vaccine production in Africa will not happen overnight. For now, several organisations and initiatives are helping secure vaccines for Africa, but in the long run a competent and competitive domestic industry is the only way to help safeguard lives on the continent.

The International Finance Corporation (IFC), along with other institutions, is ready to support an African vaccine industry by developing feasibility studies, providing de-risking tools, mobilising grants and co-financing projects.

For example, in June the IFC announced the mobilisation of €600m in long-term financing for South Africa’s Aspen Pharmacare Holdings, the only Africa-based contract manufacturer of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine. The IFC is also partnering with vaccine manufacturer and non-profit healthcare foundation Institut Pasteur de Dakar (IPD) in Senegal to expand its capacity to produce vaccines for Covid-19 and other diseases.

Working with its partners — the Agence Française de Développement, the US International Development Finance Corporation, the European Investment Bank and the government of Japan — the IFC will provide up to $14m in grant funding to IPD along with project development support.

These are examples of the types of investments that Africa needs to ramp up its vaccine production and distribution infrastructure. Although it is a start, it is not nearly enough. And clearly, there will be no broad-based economic or health recovery without widespread vaccination.

For that reason, the private sector needs to look seriously at the needs and opportunities in Africa and to work with partners, such as the World Bank Group, to develop vaccine and pharmaceutical production projects on the continent, both large and small.

Sérgio Pimenta is the International Finance Corporation’s regional vice-president for Africa.


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