Africa has the capacity and scientists to develop its own vaccines

16 November 2021 | Story Sue Harrison and Linda Mtwisha. Photo GovernmentZA. Read time 6 min.
To reduce its reliance on other countries for vital inoculation in future, efforts must be made to harness Africa’s capacity as a vaccine developer.
To reduce its reliance on other countries for vital inoculation in future, efforts must be made to harness Africa’s capacity as a vaccine developer.

The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Professor Sue Harrison, the deputy vice-chancellor for research and internationalisation, and Dr Linda Mtwisha, the executive director of research, have penned an opinion piece in the Daily Maverick’s Inoculation Nation section, calling on Africa to develop its potential as a vaccine developer.

With unprecedented scientific collaboration taking place across Africa, now is the time to create an end-to-end vaccine development pipeline that shifts the continent out of last place in future queues for vaccines.

For the developing world – especially Africa – Covid-19 vaccination statistics paint a bleak picture; high-income countries have administered 32 times more vaccine doses per capita than low-income countries.

To ensure the situation is different when the next pandemic or health crisis hits, Africa needs to embrace its role in vaccine discovery, development and manufacturing and stop leaning so heavily on the Global North for its vaccine supply. 

The good news is that Africa has the capability to drive the vaccine agenda here on the continent. Far from being spectators in the field, Africa has a wealth of players who are well recognised globally and who, with the right support and infrastructure, have phenomenal potential to contribute to the development and manufacturing future of South Africa and the rest of Africa.

Universities in South Africa already have a proud track record in vaccines, diagnostics and drug discovery. The pandemic has now delivered a unique opportunity for global and continental synergy in the vaccine space. A failure to translate this groundswell of goodwill and cooperation into lasting changes within the health and development landscape raises the risk of aggravating and entrenching social divides – with potentially disastrous consequences for economies and quality of life, especially for the poor. 

Moving discoveries from the laboratory to the factory

Covid-19 has effectively discounted the geographical distance between higher learning and scientific institutions, with increased online connection opening the way to unprecedented international cooperation. Even more importantly, there has been a genuine strengthening of links across Africa; links that can be leveraged to do great things on the “big-issue” health challenges for the continent, many of which also have global relevance. To realise this goal, African collaborators must find ways to translate local expertise, discoveries and proofs of concept into concrete vaccine manufacturing capacity for Africa.   

While there is broad acknowledgement of the expertise that sits in South Africa, our strengths tend to sit downstream and upstream in the value chain – in the discovery biology and in the “formulate, fill and finish” components. The University of Cape Town (UCT) alone has a portfolio of about 47 vaccine patents. It is involved in knowledge generation, from discovery in testing approaches, through vaccine discovery, process development, epidemiology and clinical studies on efficacy and interdependent effects of prevalent health conditions, to vaccine implementation.

Similar capability applies in other institutions of higher learning in South Africa, and further north in Africa, setting the stage for formal collaboration with commercial vaccine facilities in Senegal, Egypt, South Africa, Tunisia and newly emerging in Ethiopia, to build and expand vaccine capacity and capability across the continent. Where the continent struggles is in moving from discovery biology in the laboratory through process development to manufacture. 

African solutions for the African context

Affordability is critical. As this work continues – and investments from across the world are made to scale up local manufacturing facilities – and if production facilities are built and designed based on economic perspectives borrowed from other environments, the issue of sustainable production on the continent is likely to be problematic in the long run. We need to understand the markets, affordability, the raw material costs and the operating and capital costs from an African perspective, and design accordingly.

The time to plan and prepare for the next pandemic or health crisis is now. While political will and international solidarity are running high, this is the right time to build this critical capacity for ongoing development and manufacture. By building long-term sustainability into these plans through rigorous and effective refining of techno-economic feasibility, alongside vaccine efficacy and agility, our long-term preparedness for health challenges will be nurtured.

At UCT we saw researchers pivot quickly and ably to contribute to tackling the threat of Covid-19. With additional infrastructure and capacity in place, our researchers across Africa, including UCT, will be positioned to contribute even more meaningfully. This is the long view we need to take if we are to ensure our capabilities can be repurposed to meet the needs of emerging diseases into the future. 

Another area for action is the very exciting reignition of interest we’ve seen in mathematics and science, thanks largely to the central role played by scientists at the forefront of the fight against Covid-19. We need to seize the opportunity to develop our next generation of scholars to continue this work, because new and upscaled facilities will only take us so far. Building the next generation, from school level, needs young people who are not intimidated by science and mathematical subjects, and who will follow in the footsteps of the powerful role models who are playing a huge role in the health of Africa.

Finally, we have a responsibility to grow public understanding of science, moving away from the oft-expressed view of a dominating and misunderstood science to a science that is people-driven and people-centred, and which can be leveraged for the common good. 

For all our potential and capability as a continent, we need enhanced and sustained coordination and strategic investment to see Africa claim its role as an end-to-end developer – and not just a grateful recipient – of life-saving vaccines. 

Professor Sue Harrison is the University of Cape Town’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation. Dr Linda Mtwisha is UCT’s Executive Director of Research.

This article first appeared on Daily Maverick.

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