BusinessDay

African Vaccine Academy: Building local talent for sustainable vaccine manufacturing

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent Africa-specific outbreaks have revealed the critical role of vaccine manufacturing in both epidemic preparedness and response. Conversations among African and global public health leaders in the last few years have therefore centred on the need for Africa to become self-reliant by providing its own vaccine supplies. In the light of this, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) set an ambitious target to manufacture 60% of Africa’s routine vaccine needs by 2040. However, the poor vaccine manufacturing talent and know-how on the continent remains a critical challenge that must be tackled to achieve this vision.

Vaccine manufacturing requires an extensive skill set, particularly in areas of biopharma, quality assurance, regulatory competence, etc. Therefore, sustainable vaccine manufacturing in Africa depends on the availability of a skilled workforce with experience in a broad range of specialty areas. This is particularly important for upstream vaccine manufacturing processes such as drug substance production.

Challenges hindering vaccine manufacturing talent availability in Africa

Currently, there is a significant scarcity of vaccine development and manufacturing talent in Africa. Of the available R&D talent pool, the majority comprise students, with less than 25 percent being full-time academics. Most are associated with R&D entities that are not entirely vaccine-dedicated and thus lack key manufacturing skills, including drug substance and manufacturing R&D.

There are major challenges hindering talent availability and scale across vaccine manufacturing and R&D in Africa. One issue is the scarcity of local talent-development initiatives. Africa does not have sufficient degree programs that are relevant to vaccine manufacturing. Where these programmes are available, they focus primarily on clinical training and do not equip graduates with adequate industry know-how and technical skills needed for the job. Vaccine manufacturing know-how is generally not learnt in pharmacy schools but in vaccine manufacturing facilities and training, which are not readily available in Africa. Technology transfer is therefore essential to bridge this knowledge gap, through transferring technologies and know-how from experienced manufacturers globally to African local manufacturers.

Another major issue is the lack of funding faced by local research centres. Because of insufficient funding, these research centres cannot create sufficient full-time jobs and hence cannot retain the talent they train. A third challenge is the significant brain drain of local talent within the pharmaceutical sector. The graduates of training programs organised by local manufacturers and university research labs in Africa often travel out seeking better opportunities in higher-income countries.

Addressing these challenges requires partnership and collaboration with international institutions to fill critical talent gaps through home-grown talent development and scaling of local programs to attract African talent across the value chain. This would strengthen local drug substance manufacturing and drive the African vaccine manufacturing market towards achieving the African Union’s 2040 vision.

It is for this very purpose that Bloom Public Health, an indigenous public health think tank in Africa and its technical partner, Biotech Training Facility, Leiden, Netherlands are set to launch the African Vaccine Academy (AVA) -an African-wide initiative that will build a critical mass of talent for local vaccine manufacturing in Africa’s pharmaceutical sector.

Read also: Vaccine manufacturing in Africa – strategies to achieve the 2040 vision

The African Vaccine Academy – one of Africa’s biggest vaccine manufacturing interventions

The African Vaccine Academy (AVA) came to life as an initiative to provide training on general bio-manufacturing processes to participants with multiple entry levels to ensure that new vaccines and biologics manufacturing facilities in Africa are staffed by a skilled workforce. The AVA is an online platform offering at reduced costs, a broad range of standard training courses as well as customized training courses that are tailor-made to fit the special needs and requirements of professionals, including operators, scientists, technical staff, quality assurance officers (QA), regulators, etc.

On this platform, participants will have access to interactive training material, webinars, and virtual classrooms, where global experts will discuss specific topics and answer questions about Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and factors that influence the quality of the production process. Participants will also be able to work with colleagues on assignments and workshops during the training and build a community in the Forum to share information.

In the long-term, talented participants across the continent will visit Biotech Training Facility in Netherlands, where training is given in an actual, real-life production environment. The ultimate goal is to have this same facility in Africa offering the same training at a much cheaper rate.

It is worth mentioning that the African Vaccine Academy will precede the establishment of the African Pharmaceutical Academy (APA), an on-site pharmaceutical training academy that will deliver training to new graduates in Sub-Saharan Africa and will aim to impact needed skills and expertise relevant to the pharmaceutical industry across the continent. The African Vaccine Academy is therefore the subset of the APA that will focus on building vaccine manufacturing expertise for sustainable local manufacturing in Africa.

In conclusion, building African talent and know-how in vaccine manufacturing is non-negotiable to achieve the Africa CDC’s vision of manufacturing 60% of Africa’s routine vaccine needs by 2040. The African Vaccine Academy is therefore a timely intervention, as the training programme will build a critical mass of highly skilled regulators and manufacturers of vaccines in Africa.