African health-tech, biotech can emerge as Covid winners, report says

By David Whitehouse
Posted on Wednesday, 22 September 2021 18:14

A man receives a vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the Masaka hospital in Kigali, Rwanda March 5, 2021. REUTERS/Jean Bizimana

Africa’s health-tech and biotech industries have the opportunity to use Covid-19 to accelerate their development, according to a new report.

Investment in African health-tech start-ups reached $103m in 2020, almost four times the 2019 level, while biotech investment also climbed, according to the 2021 Africa Risk Reward Index published this week by Control Risks and Oxford Economics Africa.

Developing capacity in Africa would likely make vaccines cheaper due to reduced import tariffs, taxes and transport costs, the report says. “The longevity of the Covid-19 crisis will sustain momentum in the health-tech and biotech sectors, but the benefits of the solutions developed will persist for much longer.”

The African Union and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) aim to have 60% of the continent’s routine vaccines produced locally by 2040, with Rwanda, Senegal and South Africa identified as potential regional hubs. The continent can benefit from the impetus to develop vaccines for [other] illnesses apart from Covid-19, the Control Risks report argues.

Africa currently produces just 1% of the vaccines it uses, with much of it vaccine-industry capacity used for packaging and distribution rather than drug development. The US consulting firm McKinsey expects the African vaccine market to grow from $1.3bn a year today, to between $2.3bn and $5.4bn by 2030, and points to the fact that emerging markets such as Brazil, India, and Indonesia have developed domestic vaccine-production industries. India currently supplies about 70% of vaccines used in Africa.

  • German pharmaceutical company BioNTech said on August 27 that it is considering Rwanda and Senegal as sites for malaria and tuberculosis vaccine production, while the International Financial Cooperation (IFC) says it will support Rwanda to develop a vaccine manufacturing facility.
  • An mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub being developed in South Africa also has the potential to tackle other diseases, the report says.
  • Genome sequencing capacity is currently being established in Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone.

Patents

Africa’s gaps in vaccine coverage run deeper than Covid-19. McKinsey says more than 9.4 million African children don’t receive the third and final recommended dose of the diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTP) vaccine every year.

Patents in the developed world remain a barrier to progress, despite efforts spearheaded by South Africa and India to have the World Trade Organisation temporarily suspend Covid-19 vaccine patents, the report says. Regulatory differences across the continent are also obstacles to research, technology transfers and market access.

The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) will help address some of these issues, with talks on intellectual property harmonisation set to begin in late 2021, but progress is likely to be slow, the report says.

Development of Africa’s biotech industry also has the potential to benefit agriculture. The report estimates that every dollar invested in biotech crop seeds returns between $4 and $5 to a farmer.

Only six African countries – Eswatini, Ethiopia, Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa and Sudan – used biotech crops in 2019, though other governments have expressed interest.

Bottom line

Adherence to vaccine patents slows not just the fight against Covid-19 in Africa, but also the development of vaccine production capacity.

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