How Nigeria failed to lead vaccine production in Africa

As countries that built capacity, particularly in drug/vaccine production, count gains and get recognition in finding solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic, Nigeria, said to be Africa’s giant, is missing out on these benefits.

When the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was searching for nations to create regional vaccine manufacturing hubs, Nigeria did not make the list, rather, it selected South Africa, Senegal, and Rwanda due to its existing local capacity.

The European Union (EU) also snubbed Nigeria in 2021 and considered Ghana as the hub for vaccine manufacturing due to the initiatives already taken by the government of Ghana towards the domestic manufacturing of vaccines. The EU intends to invest about $1.2 billion to build vaccine manufacturing hubs in Africa.

Already, South Africa’s Aspen Pharmacare assembles the Johnson and Johnson (J&J) COVID-19 vaccine. The plant has a capacity of 220 million vaccines per year and is selling them in South Africa and to other African nations. This is in addition to the Biovac Institute in Cape Town, which works in partnership with Pfizer-BioNTech to produce 100 million of its vaccine doses annually.

Only recently, the founder of NantWorks, a multinational biotechnology firm, Patrick Soon-Shiong, launched a new vaccine manufacturing plant that is hoped to boost Africa’s capacity to make vaccines and other pharmaceuticals. The new plant aims to reach a goal of producing 1 billion vaccines annually by 2025.

With the right partnerships, Nigeria has all it takes to lead in the production of vaccines in Africa, said Obi Adigwe, director-general, National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD).

At the onset of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, the Nigerian government had mouthed commitment to revamp vaccine and drug production after the devastating pandemic exposed the desperate need for a local facility for Africa’s giant, which depends on imports for all its inoculations. But not much has been heard about those plans.

Nigeria has so far spent N122 billion to purchase 29 million doses of the J&J vaccines, making several experts argue that Nigeria could have prioritised finding a local solution or ramping up capacity so that the country can maximise the economics of the pandemic and count gains like other nations. Such investments experts say are both profitable and would enhance epidemic preparedness. Pharmaceutical giants are already raking in billions in profits and still counting.

For instance, BioNTech expects to make revenues of nearly €16 billion (£13.5bn) from the vaccine this year, as its first-half net profit jumped to almost €4 billion from €142 million a year earlier.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has reiterated that vaccines remain the best bet in managing the pandemic, including the emergence of new Variants of Concerns, hence vaccines or efficacious drugs will continue to be in demand for as long as possible.

Senegal is already building the first vaccine manufacturing hub in Africa with the capacity and equipment to produce COVID-19 and other vaccines.

The manufacturing hub is estimated to cost $200 million and will be financed in part by the EU and US government and institutions. The plant is expected to produce 25 million vaccine doses a month by the end of 2022, the European Commission said.

Many are raising concerns that the Nigerian government has only focused on containing the pandemic, but care less about building the much-needed health system for resilience against even future pandemics.

“If Nigeria matched its commitment with the desired action, Nigeria could have made appreciable progress even if not in mass vaccine production or sales. The country’s pharmaceutical capacity to produce vaccines could have set Nigeria on the path of becoming a leading manufacturing giant,” Adaobi Onyechi, a public health expert and virologist told BusinessDay.

In the 1990s, Nigeria produced much of the vaccines needed in the country and other nations in Africa. Those vaccines were produced at the Federal Vaccine Production Laboratory, Yaba in Lagos State – the first vaccine institute established in the country.

The Laboratory was created from what was left of the Rockefeller Yellow Fever Laboratory that had been in existence in Yaba, Lagos, since 1925. In the 1930s, it started to produce vaccines against smallpox, then rabies, yellow fever, for not only Nigeria but also neighbouring countries like Cameroon, Central Africa, and others on the continent.

This laboratory was said to have contributed tremendously to the elimination of smallpox from West Africa. Smallpox is the only human infectious disease to have been eradicated. Its eradication is a major historical triumph of global healthcare.

But it was shut down in 1991 by the government, which said it wanted to reactivate and upgrade the facility, which is yet to commence vaccine production three decades later.

Experts believe Nigeria could have done the same. “If Nigeria had sustained the capacity, the country could have been a destination point for vaccine manufacturing hub and would have attracted the much-needed investment and partnership,” Onyechi said.

Nigeria’s preference for foreign solutions is also evident in the manner it handled the search for traditional alternatives. In 2020, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) said the pandemic would lead to the emergence of indigenous pharmaceutical companies in the country and began screening local firms for the production of herbal drugs that could possibly treat or cure COVID-19. The agency received several applications from local practitioners.

However, that process crawled. Zainab Shariff, director, Traditional Complementary and Alternative Medicine (TCAM), told BusinessDay that the Federal Government was simply not interested in finding local solutions, and thus shifted focus to what other countries were developing.

Read also: What to know about billionaire opening vaccine plant in South Africa

In the same vein, the Nigerian government released N10 billion in 2020 for a vaccine production company. But, the Ministry of Health could not come up with a clear plan on how the fund would be utilised, which prompted the National Assembly to halt action on the use of the funds.

When BusinessDay contacted the Ministry of Health on the fund, an official said the ministry was no longer in charge of the mandate for local vaccine production.

The government is in talks with the World Bank’s private lending arm and other lenders to raise about N12.3 billion ($30m) to help finance a vaccine plant, three decades after the vaccine production facility was shut, he said.

Biovaccines Nigeria Limited, which is 49 percent owned by the Nigerian government with the balance held by May & Baker Nigeria plc, is targeting to begin construction of the plant in the first quarter of this year. There are however lingering bottlenecks on agreements on intellectual property and technology transfer on COVID-19 manufacturing.

In addition to the missed vaccine opportunity, health analysts believe that Nigeria has not learned from the pandemic. “Government relied on foreign countries to pursue her vaccination programme and did not build the much needed resilient health system. We did not leverage private sector support to expand funding support, remember during the pandemic private sector threw in support,” Obinna Ebirim, national coordinator, New Incentives – ABAE Initiative said.

“We missed the economics of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even smaller countries realised early and started producing medical supplies, commodities, tools and equipment. Welfare for health workers did not improve, human resources decreased,” he said.

Olufemi Babalola, president, Guild of Medical Director, said even the achievements touted by the Nigerian government in the areas of increased diagnostic, laboratory capacity as well as capacity for genomic sequencing were inadequate.

“We still need to strengthen our genetic analysis capabilities which are still rather too narrow at the moment,” he said.

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