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Strengthening research, development and vaccine manufacturing for pandemic preparedness in Africa

In our globally connected world, where the risk of epidemics and pandemics is increasing, pandemic preparedness is crucial to protecting our future. The COVID-19 pandemic posed a tremendous threat to health systems worldwide, leaving Africa’s fragile health system overwhelmed by the complexity of case identification and the challenges of safely caring for a surge of critically ill patients.

Ultimately, the focus of the African region should be on creating a resilient health system, a system that responds to all health challenges, times and people. Well-established and resilient health systems allow countries to prepare and respond appropriately to health system shocks and disturbances following unprecedented community health risks, including pandemics.

Lessons learned from responding to COVID-19 show that research and development for the manufacturing of vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics is an integral component of both pandemic preparedness and response. This was revealed by the deep vaccine inequity and overreliance of Africa and most of the world on just a few countries for vaccines.

As Africa seeks to strengthen its preparedness and response capabilities, there is an urgent need for coordination to ensure that local R&D and vaccine manufacturing are sustainable, efficient, and able to meet the demand of the next pandemic.

As Africa seeks to strengthen its preparedness and response capabilities, there is an urgent need for coordination to ensure that local R&D and vaccine manufacturing are sustainable, efficient, and able to meet the demand of the next pandemic

Research, development and vaccine manufacturing in Africa – current state and challenges

Africa imports about 99 percent of its vaccines and over 70 percent of pharmaceutical products. The limited vaccine manufacturing activity in Africa happens mainly in South Africa even though it is mostly fill and finish steps. A few other countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Ethiopia and Rwanda are also looking at local vaccine manufacturing.

Research is essential to increase vaccine-manufacturing capacity on the continent. Africa’s health R&D produces only about 2.5% of the global research output and is inadequate to cater for its current health needs. Generally, Africa has a good capacity for molecular epidemiology, genomic, and human clinical trials, but lacks preclinical testing capacity for human drugs and vaccines. There is, therefore, a need to boost R&D in this sector with significant funding.

Sadly, local R&D and vaccine manufacturing in Africa face a plethora of challenges. From scarcity of highly trained researchers that can supervise higher degree scholars, poor career progression pathways for scientific researchers, inadequate research infrastructure and access to grants, to lack of predictable and sustainable financing, an insufficiently skilled workforce, poor access to know-how, unreliable supply chains, and inexperienced regulatory authorities.

Strategies to strengthen local research, development, and vaccine manufacturing in Africa

The lack of vaccine manufacturing capacity in Africa shows a severe lack of resilience, and with the population of Africa projected to reach nearly 2.5 billion by 2050, it must be immediately addressed to strengthen preparedness for possible future pandemics.

African governments must therefore capitalise on political will, practical experience, and technical and scientific progress emerging from the pandemic to strengthen local R&D and vaccine manufacturing and be better prepared for any future pandemic.

In view of these, Bloom Public Health proposes the following strategies:

1. Exploring financing options through public-private partnerships and investment consolidation: Given that vaccine manufacturing is highly capital intensive, African governments must invest more and explore PPPs to ensure predictable and sustainable financing. The continent can also explore investment consolidation through a centralised investment fund.

Once this is seen as a strategic health security decision, both the Governments and the private sector can mobilize funding towards achieving this. AfDB, the AU, Afreximbank, and other organisations on the African continent can be major catalysts for resource mobilisation for vaccine production across Africa. This will create a uniform strategy across Africa, allowing each country to focus on its own advantages.

Read also: Africa’s vaccine supply chain: strategies to strengthen last mile delivery

2. Increasing empowerment of African-based researchers through top-notch training and grants: There is a need to identify and support locally originated and led efforts, particularly among junior researchers who have worthy ideas but are limited by a lack of grant funding. Such capacity-building grants will empower young scientists who are seeking to establish themselves as independent investigators and advance in their careers.

Also, there is an urgent need for excellent training programmes that emphasize skills development for junior African scientists, improved mentorship and training in research by senior faculty to junior faculty, and increased investment in infrastructure for research in higher education institutions.

3. Technology transfer and skills development: Vaccine manufacturing requires an extensive skill set, particularly in areas of biopharma, quality assurance, regulatory competence, etc. The WHO is addressing this through its mRNA training hub, which provides the necessary know-how and human capital training to enable countries build capacity for rapid production of vaccines and biological products. African countries should make more effort to take ownership of this project and secure a pipeline of talents for vaccine manufacturing on the continent.

Bloom Public Health and Biotech Training Facility in the Netherlands are launching a training program focused on regulators and manufacturers of vaccines in Africa in 2023.

Conclusion

Although the pandemic has been a terrible experience globally, in Africa, it is a golden opportunity to change the R&D and pharma manufacturing landscape on our continent. This is crucial for future pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response.