The African Centre for Disease Control (Africa CDC) says it would like to see the continent produce up to 60% of the vaccines it needs in the next 20 years. Currently, the continent only produces 1% of all its vaccines – importing the rest.

The CDC in conjunction with the African Union, began a two-day conference on Monday looking at boosting Africa’s capacity to manufacture and develop vaccines.

The urgency to expand vaccine manufacturing has been spurred on by COVID-19 and the lack of access to the vital drugs.

The rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines is said to have highlighted the importance of why developing countries need to build capacity to develop and produce their own drugs. Less than 1% of the global rollout has been in Africa.

“We believe that we can begin to shift the needle where we are today in 2021 to where were believe we can be in 2040 where we shift the needle and rather than import 99% of our vaccines begin to import about 40% of our vaccines in 20 years. And we need to develop a regional approach where it’s coordinated and have vaccine manufacturing sites per region – this is what we call a step wise process towards achieving manufacturing goals in four or five regions,” says CDC Director, John Nkengasong.

Monday’s proceedings of the conference:

The idea to have manufacturing regions is to allow Africa to develop vaccines for Africa-specific disease outbreaks such as Ebola. The challenges have not been ignored. Member states will have to work together on access to finance and infrastructure as well as attaining technology and knowledge.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa says the COVID-19 pandemic has showcased the Africa’s capabilities in science and in health response. South Africa was one of the countries to identify a variant of the coronavirus and Africa is reporting the lowest numbers of infections and deaths as a region.

“Our task now is to harness all these capabilities, and to draw on the experience of the past year to build a vibrant and innovative African medical supplies manufacturing capability that meets the health needs of the continent’s people. This means that in the medium term, we need to expand existing capabilities into regional hubs that serve the Continent as a whole,” he says.

Ramphosa says Africa also needs to partner with developed nations to access resources such as funding and technology and knowledge transfer.

“Partners in various countries could offer technological expertise, financing and investment. Countries such as India and Brazil could provide guidance on how they developed their own generic pharmaceutical industries. Such collaboration should form the basis of a longer-term strategy to develop a pharmaceutical industry that can achieve continental scale,” he adds.

The success of building manufacturing capacity will create more than three-million jobs in Africa and boost continental trade.

The World Trade Organisation’s Director-General, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, says the investment in healthcare can only yield strong economic benefits.

“The best global economic stimulus is equitable access to vaccines. On manufacturing – Africa presents 16% of the world’s population but less than 0.1% of vaccine production and makes the continent vulnerable to export restrictions and denied the world of a more diversified vaccine production base. That’s why this conference is so important,” says Okonjo-Iweala.

Intellectual property concerns

Meanwhile, the debate on intellectual property rages on. If vaccines are to be developed in Africa – then the sharing of intellectual property must be permitted. Secretary-General of the African Continental Free Trade Area, Wamkele Mene, says they will push for less restricting stipulations at the upcoming meetings of the WTO.

“We have an opportunity to craft an intellectual property rights regime that will achieve two things. First it will ensure that there is a legal framework that will be flexible enough to allow access to public health to millions of Africans. Second, our intellectual property rights regimes must be at service of Africa’s industrialisation objectives,” says Mene.

The conference continues on Tuesday. The agenda includes financing of manufacturing of vaccines as well as the role of the private sector and universities.