When the world came to a standstill in the year 2020 due to the outbreak of a new little-known disease, later to be named COVID-19, many were gravely worried that Africa (as a low-resource setting) would be home to the highest numbers of casualties. The relative lack of health personnel, equipment, and funds suggested that Africa will be most hit by the new virus, similar to the impact of climate change. Thankfully, this prediction largely failed, and Africa emerged relatively unscathed.
One could argue that there was an effective collective effort made to slow the spread of the virus, with governments of African countries, corporate organizations, and NGOs collaborating to ensure the safety of the people through the distribution of relief materials, such as food and personal protective equipment (PPE), creation of awareness about the dangers of the virus, training, and deployment of healthcare workers in public sector hospitals and clinics, as well as the purchase/deployment of vaccines.
Among such NGOs were private-sector-created funding initiatives such as the Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID) in Nigeria, which partnered with the federal government of Nigeria. There was the Solidarity Fund in South Africa, and continentally, there was the Mastercard Foundation and its USD 1.5 billion partnership with the Africa CDC, which birthed the Saving Lives and Livelihoods initiative.
Meanwhile, as global efforts to contain the virus continued, many began to project, predict, and plan for life after the pandemic. Some in Africa were convinced that the virus had caught everyone’s attention, demonstrating the significance of health security, as evidenced by the ability of the health incidence to halt life as we know it, even temporarily. This hard-taught lesson meant that the healthcare issues of Africa would be addressed once the pandemic is controlled, as all hands would be on deck to do so. Sadly, this prediction also seems far from being fulfilled.
While Africa is still lagging developmentally in many areas, her vaccine capabilities – vaccine production and use, should be prioritized. With COVID-19, Africa depended on the benevolence of other countries and organizations willing to donate COVID-19 vaccines to Africa. Sadly, this has always been the case: Africa imports (with subsidies and donations) about 99% of its vaccine needs though it is home to well over a billion people and has 55 countries. The question has always been: how long will Africa continue looking up to international donors for succor? It’s pertinent that strategic, structured, and sustainable steps are taken toward ensuring Africa’s health security and response to future pandemics. Africa needs to build a skilled workforce capable of supporting vaccine manufacturing as well as producing vaccines and diagnostics to enhance the continent’s ability to respond to emerging pandemics and diseases.
The journey towards achieving vaccine self-reliance in Africa is believed to have begun when the Partnerships for African Vaccine Manufacturing (PAVM) Framework for Action was established in April 2021. The proposed ambition by the African Union (AU) through the African Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) is to locally manufacture 60% of the total vaccines needed on the continent by 2040.
Atop the difficulty in getting enough COVID-19 vaccines, the use of the vaccines has also proven to be challenging, especially in the face of vaccine hesitancy. Many countries were faced with reluctance by their citizens to be vaccinated with the COVID-19 vaccines. There were many reasons advanced for the vaccine hesitancy, one of which was distrust in what was being received from outside the continent.
Both issues, inadequate vaccine supply and vaccine hesitancy, are amenable to improved vaccine production in Africa. Not only will global health inequity be addressed by ensuring local vaccine production, but it will also ensure the health security of Africa, which is ordinarily impossible if she remains dependent (wholly or significantly) on the importation of her critical supplies such as vaccines. Therefore, any initiative to boost local production of vaccines in Africa should be encouraged.
Currently, the Institute Pasteur Dakar (IPD) is developing world-class vaccine manufacturing facilities in Senegal. To achieve this, several organizations are collaborating with the IPD on the broader goal of ensuring the availability of accessible and affordable vaccines on the continent since the project will focus on producing vaccines that are most relevant to the population of Africa. Recently, the Mastercard Foundation pledged USD 45 million to support the project over the next three years to develop and build a skilled workforce for vaccine manufacturing. While going a long way to address the vaccination capability of Africa, the project will also be reducing unemployment on the continent with the youngest population worldwide.
In conclusion, since Dr. Edward Jenner created the world’s first successful vaccine in 1796, disease prevention through vaccination has gained global prominence and is widely regarded as one of the most significant public health interventions of the past century. This has entailed substantial global investments in vaccine research and development, resulting in the European Union being the largest manufacturer of vaccines, closely followed by India and China. Given its young population, Africa must cultivate its capacities, particularly regarding human resources for vaccine development and to ensure healthcare security.
Dr. M. Oladoyin Odubanjo
Executive Secretary, The Nigerian Academy of Science
Chairman, Africa Chapter, International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA)