The untraceable African vaccine against Covid-19

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One of the leading African powers, Nigeria, assures us that it is developing its own vaccine against Covid-19, in order to break with the continent’s dependence on foreign laboratories. The president, Muhammadu Buhari, again praised Monday the dynamism of the Nigerian scientific community. But the mystery hovers around this Nigerian vaccine and its real state of progress.

The truth is probably less rosy than proclaimed by the authorities in Abuja. Because Nigeria, like other African countries, is starting from afar. As recently confided by molecular biologist Christian Happi, director of the African Center of Excellence on the Genome and Infectious Diseases (Acegid), an institution justly praised by the Nigerian president for its innovations against Covid-19 and funded by the World Bank: “Have there been any attempts to create a vaccine in Africa? Yes. But Africa has not invested in research and development of vaccines against Covid-19. ”

Read also: “Vaccination: the South African locomotive broken down”

Africa is waking up, however. On Monday and Tuesday, the African Union convened an online conference on vaccine production on the continent. Several heads of state participated, such as the South African Cyril Ramaphosa, the Rwandan Paul Kagame and the Congolese Félix Tshisekedi. At the origin of the initiative, John Nkengasong, the director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Africa (CDC-Africa), admitted that it was a long race but that it It was necessary to take the start so that the continent is not so destitute in the future.

99% of imported vaccines

Currently, only 1% of vaccines administered to Africans are produced on the continent, he admitted. The objective is to reach 60% by 2040. For this, the African Union announced at the end of the virtual conference the launch of a “partnership for the manufacture of African vaccines” with the creation of five poles. research and manufacturing in each region of the continent. Several countries have already announced their interest, such as South Africa, Rwanda and Senegal.

In this vast plan, the African Union secured the collaboration of the Vaccines Alliance (GAVI), based in Geneva, and the Coalition for Innovations in Epidemic Preparedness (CEPI), two institutions that are already piloting the Covax system with the WHO. Two pan-African financial institutions are also associated with this new initiative.

When it comes to industrial production and technology transfer, voluntarism is not enough. Without speaking of an African vaccine, still hypothetical, several countries have joined forces with foreign laboratories to produce locally. This is the case of South Africa or Egypt. Developing countries have been calling for months for a relaxation of the rules of the World Trade Organization protecting intellectual property. For now, these efforts, led in particular by South Africa and India, are unsuccessful and clash with Western countries, protecting their pharmaceutical industry.

Dependence on international aid

For their part, African countries must invest in research but also in the health system, as well as modernize the regulatory framework, underlined several experts at the conference organized by the African Union. According to the Quartz website, in Africa, research budgets do not exceed 0.5% of the gross national products of the countries of the continent, four times less than in the rest of the world.

During the conference, economist Vera Songwe, of the Economic Commission for Africa, also recalled that the health systems of African countries were largely financed by international aid. “Donors are driving the private sector away,” she warns. International donors are also inclined to favor the import of drugs rather than investing in local producers. “There is however no inevitability, African capacities exist and they only ask to be encouraged”, exhorts Vera Songwe.

Seth Berkley, director of GAVI, agrees. The organization is the world’s leading provider of vaccines against many diseases. It obtains its supplies from around ten pharmaceutical companies, a minority of which are located in Europe or North America. “Diversification is crucial, because vaccine production encounters many hazards,” says Seth Berkley. In Africa, GAVI is counting, for example, on the Institut Pasteur in Senegal for a vaccine against yellow fever. But for an African vaccine against Covid-19, we will still have to wait.