The US has administered close to 300 million Covid-19 vaccine doses in comparison to the less than 50 million doses administered in the entire African continent.
Data from the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) shows that the US which is used as a benchmark by many African nations is doing far better but there are many factors favouring this including but not limited to manufacturing and transport logistics.
Africa remains at the tail-end of many developments and the slow vaccine rollout is not a shocker. Interestingly, the continent has managed to weather the worst of what has been happening in the rest of the world thus dodging the deadliest of the pandemic. The continent has struggled with securing timely access to adequate vaccine supplies since it relies heavily on imports and it is no different with the Covid-19 vaccines.
Away from the pandemic, Africa imports almost 99 per cent of its routine vaccines and the pandemic is forcing a rethink on Africa manufacturing its own vaccines.
According to McKinsey, there is a strong demand growth projection with the company’s estimates showing that the public market for vaccines in Africa could rise from US$1.3 billion today to between US$2.3 billion and US$5.4 billion by 2030. This demand is dependent on the following scenario.
There is a huge market in Africa for vaccines since the continent’s population is growing faster than that of most other regions. This means that the significant immunization coverage gaps which have remained have to be filled while new products could be introduced for use on the continent.
Currently, a majority of Africa’s vaccines have been availed through COVAX, a global initiative aimed at equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines led by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and the World Health Organization.
COVAX is not dedicated to African countries alone since it is serving more than 150 nations which represent almost two-thirds of the world’s population. Through COVAX, two billion doses of safe, effective and affordable Covid-19 vaccines are expected to be given by the end of 2021
This plug-in by the WHO and its partners still means that Africa’s needs will still not be wholly met which creates an opportunity for those in the private sector to address the deficit.
Since the pandemic was announced in early 2020, there have been notable shifts which include increased political commitments from African and global leaders to invest in local vaccine manufacturing. This shift is especially driven by the launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and the promise the trade agreement holds.
The African Medicines Agency (AMA) and regional economic communities are also in support of the harmonization of markets which could open up the continent for collaboration and eventually the availability of cheaper drugs and vaccines.
Noteworthy, though, is that countries are working independently so far but there has been talk of coming together in partnerships for drugs development and other related issues including marketing across borders. But until then, the continent has to rely on imports for the vaccines and this is where the private sector comes in.
The reality is that most African governments cannot manage to order all the supplies needed and still, more needs to be done to ensure that players in the private sector have an environment that will enable the building of sustainable supply chains before the vaccines industry in Africa picks up.
However, it is not an easy ride for private companies seeking to import vaccines into African countries. Kenya has for instance banned the private importation of Covid-19 vaccines claiming that such shipments were potentially dangerous since they were unlicensed and the shots could be counterfeit. The country secured just over a million shots through COVAX signifying that it is still in dire need of the vaccines, no matter the source.
Before Kenya announced the ban in early April, one company had shipped in Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine with the shots going for around US$150 (Kshs16,000) for a double dose.
The Kenyan government said that there would be no licensing of private players in the importation of vaccines while cancelling any such license. This effectively makes the government the sole vaccination agent until it decides to open the opportunity up for those who can ship in the vaccines.
Kenya said the ban would be in place until the government was confident of transparency and accountability in the entire process.
On the other hand, the Ugandan government allowed the private sector to import and distribute their own Covid-19 vaccines but under strict regulations. The move was to enable the nation to expedite the country’s vaccination drive. Uganda has experienced a vaccine supply shortage which is not peculiar since shortages are affecting many African nations.
With the two countries offering different directions on vaccine importation, the general picture is that the vaccine roll-out in Africa remains uncertain.
This is following India’s decision to suspend its bulk supplies of AstraZeneca vaccines to low-income countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas. The affected countries are largely dependent on vaccines delivered through COVAX.
Back in Kenya, private hospitals will start vaccinating Kenyans in July after the government struck an import deal in a partnership under the WHO. In the talks expected to conclude at the end of June, private hospitals will be able to vaccinate Kenyans in the second phase set for July.
The government says it is creating an option where private hospitals can charge Kenyans to increase the vaccination coverage.
With what is being experienced in Kenya, is it possible then for Africa to make vaccines for Africa now?
McKinsey notes that undoubtedly, a domestic industry is possible but only if there is meaningful cooperation and a long-term commitment from leaders in all sectors.
For Covid-19 vaccines development on the continent, projections show that milder illness may require limited to no vaccination thus reducing the demand for vaccines which will affect the manufacturers despite what they invest to produce the vaccines.
On the flip side, though, emerging variants could see the Covid-19-vaccine market grow significantly that could drive the demand which would necessitate the need for private sector health players to be allowed to import the vaccines to address the needs of the continent.