Earlier this week (4/12-4/13), the Africa Center for Disease Control (Africa CDC) and African Union (AU) held a conference to address the limits, challenges, and future of Africa’s Vaccine Manufacturing landscape. I jotted down 10 lessons that I learned from attending the conference to share with my colleagues at Under the Microscope, a STEM capacity building non-profit based in Nairobi, Kenya.
1. The development of Africa’s capacity to manufacture vaccines in a sustainable, large-scale manner requires intentional buy-ins from both public and private sectors. Several panelists were keen to remind the audience that in addition to obvious benefits to health & medicine, robust Research & Development (R&D) translates to high profits in political, economic, and scientific spheres. Therefore, focused investment is a worthwhile effort to yield high returns for the African continent on multiple simultaneous fronts.
2. Success of large-scale vaccine manufacturing ventures on the African continent requires a multi-pronged, comprehensive approach. Specifically, there must be: (a) Establishment of Africa-based, WHO-certified regulatory frameworks to ensure uniform and safe manufacture of all manufactured product, (b) Robust skill development & education to ensure an abundance of local specialists to staff the facilities, (c) Infrastructure in place to support productive technology transfer across the globe, and (d) An incisive assessment of (i) the financial investments necessary to make the vaccines on a large scale and (ii) the market demand for the vaccines within the continent. These four areas have to be developed in parallel with equal enthusiasm for sustainable and continued success.
3. There are already existing nascent vaccine producing enterprises that are scattered across the continent. Therefore, moving towards robust vaccine research & development on the continent isn’t entirely “starting from scratch”. Instead, these existing organizations need to be supported, bolstered, and scaled up. Several speakers highlighted the importance of modular design for expanding vaccine production initiatives. For example: there are established specifications for what constitutes a “clean room”, what specific Heating, Ventilation, and Air-Conditioning (HVAC) equipment must be installed, what specific quality of raw materials are necessary for reproducible product etc. Thus, it is entirely feasible to build highly specialized factories that are identical in multiple parts of the continent.
4. Messenger-RNA (mRNA) based therapeutics have revolutionized vaccine design because they are now faster to develop, produce, design, and adapt compared to conventional approaches. Furthermore, because they are fairly new, there is still much potential, and even more to be learned about them. Therefore, this is a good time to learn and train alongside the whole world.
5. The limitations that impact R&D on the African continent are not just about capacity building but also about how the donor community considers and prioritizes healthcare needs on the continent. That has to change in order to accommodate faster strides in R&D.
6. Costs associated with the supply of R&D materials can be mitigated with pool procurement strategies to ensure that materials are acquired and disbursed in the most efficient & affordable manner. Pool procurement initiatives could also evolve into the development of continued synergy between countries on the continent to support inter-country manufacturing partnerships ie: Country 1: develops “x”, and then Country 2: develops “y” for a final product “x+y”. This is cheaper and faster across the board.
7. Various Presidents and Ministers of Health & Finance from several countries on the African continent were present to discuss country-specific incentives to advance vaccine manufacturing at all levels. Additionally, there were representatives from education institutes that have developed specific training initiatives in response to increased demand in the field of Vaccinology like Wits-ALIVE (African Local Initiative for Vaccinology Expertise) MSc(Med).
8. The cultural moment of the global COVID-19 pandemic seems to have the global R&D world uniquely poised to work together. There were many panel-speakers from several International Organizations who seemed willing and excited to commit & partner alongside the AU and the Africa CDC. These experts ranged from the director of National Institutes of Health (NIH) to the CEO of Moderna, the leaders of the Chinese CDC and Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), the Chief Scientific Advisors to the UK and Norwegian governments, the UN Under-Secretary General for the Economic Commission to Africa, the director of International Partnerships of the EU Commission, and Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to name but a few. At this end of this conference, MOU’s were signed between the Africa CDC and CEPI, and collaboration documents were signed between Africa CDC and Africa Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank) and Africa Finance Corporation.
9. At any given time-point on each of the two days of the conference, there were hundreds of people on the Zoom call, which indicates a large interest in the topic. It would be great for the AU & Africa CDC to hold more regular meetings to maintain momentum and accountability on this amazing initiative. Tele-conferencing has increased access for many and works well for such a task. Furthermore, more regular conversations will demystify scientific R&D processes and can be used as a vehicle to increase overall science literacy.
10. A the end of the meeting, a new task-force was revealed called “Partnership for African Vaccine Manufacturers” (PAVM). PAVM aims to facilitate: 60% of the African population vaccinated against COVID-19 by 2022. In addition, by 2040, it aims to facilitate the development of 5 regional vaccine hubs across the continent, local production of at least 1-3 vaccines for emerging diseases, 30-60% capacity to manufacture vaccines in response to a pandemic and 20-60% local capacity to make local vaccines for routine immunizations.
Taken together, the team at the AU and Africa CDC and their global partners seem well on their way to devise strategic and actionable ways to bolster Africa’s R&D capacities. One sector that I would have liked to see and hear more from are the leaders in the energy, electricity & water sectors. How can we ensure that the factories are sourced with sustainable energy? Are there robust power grids to support vaccine factories, and clean water that is readily accessible? Are there specific government incentives (lower taxes etc) that can be used to attract this specific sector to support R&D? Perhaps this could be the next conference focus soon.
Thank you once more to the AU and Africa CDC for hosting this conference. I look forward to many more progress reports and updates!
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