Covid spurs Africa’s burgeoning vaccine manufacturing industry
South African-born biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong has launched a new facility in Cape Town to make Covid vaccines based on cancer therapy technology
Africa’s race to boost its vaccine-making capacity has accelerated at the start of the year with the launch of a plant in Cape Town to make a billion Covid-19 vaccines a year by 2025.
South African-born biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong has pledged £146 million ($195 million) to the NantSA Vaccine Manufacturing Campus that aims to produce “second generation” vaccines based on cancer therapy technology.
Soon-Shiong, a Los Angeles-based former transplant surgeon who invented the cancer drug Abraxane, said South Africa could “become the Singapore of Africa”: “(It’s) the opportunity for us to actually truly make a difference and impact the world,” he said at the launch of the NantSA facility.
The aim is to produce a universal booster that targets the nucleocapsid protein at the core of the coronavirus, which is less prone to mutation than the spike proteins targeted by other shots.
The facility, which will be the largest of its kind in Africa, will also work on vaccines for other diseases that plague the continent, such as HIV and tuberculosis.
So far, about 10 billion doses of Covid-19 jabs have been administered worldwide, but fewer than one in 10 African adults have received two doses –– making Africa the least vaccinated continent. The main reason is lack of access to vaccines, after wealthier countries bought up the bulk of initial supplies.
The inequity exposed by Covid-19 has spurred efforts in Africa to fight this pandemic and to prepare for future disease outbreaks: “Africa should no longer be last in line to access vaccines against pandemics,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said at the NantSA launch.
Through the African Union, the continent has acquired more than 500 million vaccine doses, but that is only about half of what countries need to meet the World Health Organisation’s target of a 70 per cent vaccinated population, Ramaphosa said. “We need more vaccine doses, we need better therapeutics, and we need to protect the people of our continent against future variants and future pandemics.”
Africa currently produces only about 1 per cent of the vaccines used on the continent, and that capability is confined to just five nations –– Egypt, Ethiopia, Senegal, South Africa, and Tunisia–– on a continent of 55 countries.
Numerous initiatives on the continent are working to ensure that African countries will be better prepared for the next pandemic and to combat current threats.
“Covid was the catalyst,” says Nicaise Ndembi, chief science advisor at the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).
In December, the African Union established its Partnerships for African Vaccine Manufacturing, which seeks to ensure that by 2040, 60 per cent of all vaccines used on the continent are produced in Africa. To meet this target, experts estimate that the continent would have to produce between 1.5- and 1.7-billion doses a year.
South African scientists have been at the forefront of combating the pandemic with advanced genomic surveillance and were the first to detect both the Beta and Omicron variants.
But even South Africa, with its advanced infrastructure, relies on importing the active components of vaccines from other countries.
South Africa’s Biovac Institute has struck a deal with Pfizer and BioNTech to manufacture 100 million doses a year of their Covid-19 vaccine for the African market.
Biovac will “fill and finish” the vaccine, the final stages of manufacturing where the product is processed, put into vials and shipped.
Another local pharmaceutical company Aspen Pharmacare, which imports active ingredients, announced in October that it planned to increase its manufacturing capacity to 1.3-billion vaccine doses a year.
There is a similar proliferation of vaccine-production initiatives in countries with existing capacity, such as Egypt (which is currently trialling its own Covid vaccine, Covi Vax) and Senegal (which has partnered with the European Union to build a manufacturing plant to produce vaccines against Covid and other endemic diseases).
Other African countries, such as Rwanda, are working to build up their vaccine production capabilities. In October, BioNTech signed an agreement with Rwanda as well as the Institut Pasteur de Dakar in Senegal to build a manufacturing plant in one of the two countries this year.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation plans to establish a tech transfer hub to make mRNA technology, such as that used in Moderna’s Covid vaccine, available in poorer countries.
“These initiatives hinge on the transfer of technology, knowledge and data from patent holders to manufacturers in lower-income regions,” according to the World Health Organisation. “That transfer has so far not been happening at the levels we would have hoped, but there has been some progress.”
But there is more to vaccine production than the technology. “To get an end-to-end delivery system for vaccines is important,” says Ndembi, who is also director of laboratory research with the Institute of Human Virology, Nigeria.
For the African Union’s vaccine plan to be successful, markets need to work.
With its relatively developed vaccine capability, Senegal, for example, could manufacture many more vaccine doses that it can consume, and needs to access regional and global markets, Ndembi says. A vaccine manufacturing ecosystem also requires standardised manufacturing practices so any surplus could be exported.
The urgency of tackling this pandemic should leave Africa in better shape to tackle other diseases and future pandemics, he says.
The African Union’s strategy goes beyond Covid, including 22 priority diseases, including malaria, as well as diseases such as Lassa fever, which are endemic in Africa.
“With this momentum, we can become stronger than we were before Covid,” Ndembi says.
Sarah Wild @sarahemilywild is a freelance science journalist who splits her time between South Africa and the UK