Six African countries have been chosen to set up their own mRNA vaccine production, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Friday, with the continent largely barred from access to Covid shots.
Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia were selected as the first recipients of technology from WHO’s global mRNA vaccine hub, in a bid to ensure Africa can make its own vaccines to fight the Covid and other diseases to fight.
“More than 80 percent of the population of Africa has yet to receive a single dose. Much of this inequality has been caused by the fact that vaccine production worldwide is concentrated in a few high-income countries,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a ceremony on the sidelines of an EU-Africa summit in Brussels.
“One of the most obvious lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic, therefore, is the urgent need to increase local vaccine production, especially in low- and middle-income countries.”
Tedros has continuously called for equal access to vaccines to beat the pandemic, protesting the way rich countries have picked up on doses, leaving Africa behind other continents in the global vaccination effort.
Currently, only one percent of vaccines used in Africa are produced on the continent of some 1.3 billion people.
The WHO set up a global mRNA technology transfer hub in South Africa last year to help manufacturers in low- and middle-income countries produce their own vaccines.
The role of the global hub is to ensure that manufacturers in those countries have the know-how to make mRNA vaccines at scale and to international standards.
As used in the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines, mRNA technology triggers an immune response by delivering genetic molecules that code for key parts of a pathogen into human cells.
The global hub was established primarily to address the Covid-19 pandemic and has the potential to expand production capacity for other vaccines and products, such as insulin to treat diabetes, cancer drugs and, potentially, vaccines for disease. such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV.
The ultimate goal of the scheme is to spread the capacity for national and regional production to all health technologies.
“The goal is to reach 60% levels of African-produced vaccines administered in Africa by 2040,” said EU chief Ursula von der Leyen.
‘Back in line’
The WHO said it would work with the first six countries chosen to develop a training and support roadmap so they can start producing vaccines as soon as possible. The training starts in March.
The South African hub already produces mRNA vaccines on a laboratory scale and is currently scaling up to commercial scale.
But the announcement of the technical transfers does not resolve the thorny issue of Covid-19 patents, which put Africa at odds with Europe.
African – and other developing countries – are urging the World Trade Organization for a temporary intellectual property waiver to allow for generic production of vaccines and treatments.
Europe – home to some of the major companies behind the vaccines – has opposed the move, arguing that the first priority has been to build production capacity in poorer countries.
“We are talking about the lives of millions, hundreds of millions of people, rather than the profitability of the few companies,” said South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.
“It is unacceptable that Africa is consistently at the back of the line when it comes to access to medicines.”
French President Emmanuel Macron opposed the calls for an exemption, but put forward other options, including “mandatory licensing” that would allow the patents to be used in limited cases.
“We have to be consistent with everything we do, we have to protect intellectual property because it is very important for us to keep creating, innovating and inventing,” Macron said.
“We must ensure that this intellectual property never hinders the dissemination of knowledge and the building of its capabilities.”