By Christa Ishimwe
As of June 22nd, 2.6 billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered globally (Our World in Data, 2021). While 34 per 100 doses have been administered per person in the world, the vaccination rate in Africa is 3 doses per 100 people. Africa’s low vaccination rates highlight issues of global vaccine inequity that leads to lack of access to affordable vaccines for low and middle income countries, while high income countries overflow with expired/unused vaccines. For example, in high-income countries alone, 1 in 3 people have been vaccinated, as compared to 1 in 500 in poorer countries (BBC NEWS, 2021).
The COVAX program- backed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and other multilateral bodies- is actively working to supply 600 million doses to Africa, enough to vaccinate at least 20% of the population. To date, COVAX has delivered 65 million doses to 124 countries. However, on top of access and financing issues, many African countries are also battling with subpar infrastructure to store vaccines and hesitancy from citizens leading to thousands of doses being destroyed (WHO, 2021). For example, Malawi destroyed almost 20,000 doses of the AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine, while South Sudan announced it would destroy 59,000 in the month of April (BBC NEWS, 2021). This is because both countries failed to administer the doses by their expiration date.Though most vaccines have a refrigerated shelf life of six months, the Covax scheme significantly delays delivery time from vaccine production countries to Africa , due to complex contractual barriers that leads to doses being delivered with little shelf time left. This, combined with weak health services and poor transport networks that slow down the pace of vaccine rollout— especially to remote areas— is what is hindering Africa’s journey towards a post Covid world.
In June, the WHO announced that a handful of African countries had approved the patent for the right to manufacture the COVID-19 vaccines next year. These countries include South Africa, Rwanda, Senegal and possibly Nigeria. The Director-General of the World Trade Organization, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, announced last Monday, “We have now seen that over-centralization of vaccine production capacity is incompatible with equitable access in a crisis situation. Regional production hubs, in tandem with open supply chains, offer a more promising path to preparedness for future health crisis” (Reuters, 2021).
In Senegal, The Institute Pasteur, which is the only facility in Africa currently producing a vaccine (yellow fever shot) that is pre-qualified by the WHO, is on track to begin packaging and distribution vaccines produced by Univercells in Belgium. Univercell has committed to transferring its full production line to Senegal in 2022, and eventually the effort will be fully led by trained local staff in Senegal. This project is estimated to cost about US $200 million, and aim to produce 300 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine by the end of next year (The Straits Times, 2021). Though the budget for this seems ambitious, a few wealthy countries in the EU have committed to investing at least $1.6 billion to build manufacturing hubs in Africa, in hopes of boosting the pharmaceuticals industry in Africa and supporting businesses producing materials and components. Africa’s vaccine market is also expected to rise from $1.6 billion to $5.4 billion by 2030, due to population growth and availability of new vaccines (McKinsey & Co, 2021). This goes beyond Covid, and introduces vaccine production as Africa’s newest most lucrative market, which will easily pour into and improve health delivery systems across the continent and create millions of new jobs. Through these new manufacturing hubs, there is growing hope that Africa will soon see the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, and be prepared for the next pandemic.