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Morocco-Egypt vs South Africa-Nigeria: A race for vaccines on the continent

By Camille Lafrance
Posted on Thursday, 3 June 2021 09:53

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa visiting Aspen Pharmacare's production site in Port Elizabeth on 29 March. This is the only site producing a vaccine against Covid on the continent. Lulama Zenzile/Die Burger/Gallo Images/Getty

While African nations are mobilising to manufacture vaccines locally, industrial capacity is uneven and negotiations with pharmaceutical giants such as Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer-BioNTech remain opaque.

At a time when Africa is sorely lacking in Covid-19 vaccines, advocacy for local production is gaining momentum. While some countries already have concrete prospects with major pharmaceutical companies – mainly Johnson & Johnson, Sputnik V and Sinovac – production schedules and volumes, as well as supply and distribution arrangements, still remain very unclear. Furthermore, many negotiations are still underway on the subject, both between Africans and with Western, Russian and Chinese groups as well as international institutions.

In the wake of the pandemic, African policymakers have realised the need to develop their pharmaceutical industry. Hopes were fuelled by a high-level virtual conference, which was organised on 12 April by the African Union’s African Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).

Its director, John Nkengasong from Cameroon, would like to see the continent producing more than half of the vaccines it consumes within 20 years, up from 1% today. At the same time, the African vaccine market is expected to grow significantly, from $1.3bn a year today to between $2.3bn and $5.4bn by 2030, according to US strategy firm McKinsey.

Five regional production hubs

As for the anti-coronavirus vaccine, the continent has so far received less than 2% of the doses administered worldwide.

Africa would need 1.5 billion doses to vaccinate 60% of its population and thus reach the minimum threshold for herd immunity, according to estimates. It is expected that the Covax programme will eventually provide 20% of the requirement. More than two billion doses produced outside the continent have been negotiated, but only a few million have been received.

These vaccines, which have been supplied mainly by Pfizer and AstraZeneca (via their various platforms, including the Serum Institute of India), are slow to be distributed. The fact that Indian exports have been suspended does not help the situation.

The African Union (AU) has also set up its own initiative called Avatt (African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team), and has already announced that it has negotiated 670 million doses, thanks to support from Afreximbank and the World Bank.