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Why producing Coronavirus vaccines locally is not viable

By Lewis Njoka
Friday, May 7th, 2021 00:00 | 2 mins read
A medic holds a vaccine. Photo/PD/COURTESY

Lewis Njoka @LewisNjoka

It may not be economically viable for local pharmaceuticals to start producing Covid-19 vaccines locally unless they are looking at long term-gains, experts have said.

This comes even as the United States on Wednesday said it supports the relaxation of Covid-19 vaccine patents to allow other countries to produce and distribute coronavirus vaccines. 

If Covid-19 vaccine producers agree to this, local drug manufactures will then be allowed to start producing and distributing the vaccines locally. 

But experts say this could be a tall order considering that the country at the moment does not have any human vaccine manufacturing plants. 

Pharmacy and Poisons Board CEO, Fred Siyoi, said local pharmaceuticals would have to carry out a thorough analysis before investing in the vaccine production to ensure it makes economic sense. 

He said while Kenya has the capacity to manufacture the vaccines considering that it is already producing veterinary vaccines it takes time to bring the required resources together. 

“Patent is just one barrier. You have to be assured of a market, a bigger market, or else you will invest in equipment, personnel and other infrastructure and use it for only one month or two and lie idle the rest of the time,” Siyoi said.

“It may be a challenge to put in the money and then you don’t get the returns,” he added.

His sentiments were echoed by Pharmaceutical Society of Kenya President, Louis Machogu, who said it made no economic sense to build a human vaccine production plant from scratch, adding that converting a veterinary vaccine plant to produce human vaccine is just as expensive. 

“The problem is, will the investment you put into upgrading a plant or building one from scratch be worth it for the short term? For the long term it’s worth it.” 

Relaxing the patents

It is estimated that building manufacturing facility cost between $60 (Sh6.41 billion  and $130 million (Sh13.89 billion).

He, however, supported the move to relaxing the patents, saying it will allow countries such as South Africa and Egypt which already have manufacturing plants, to produce vaccines for the rest of the continent.

Currently, Moderna vaccine is manufactured in the US while Pfizer vaccine is manufactured in BioNTech’s facilities in Europe and the United States. 

Astrazeneca vaccine is manufactured in India by the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccines producer.

The calls by the US come barely two weeks after India announced a temporary ban on the export of Astrazeneca vaccine throwing Africa’s vaccination efforts into disarray. 

US Trade Representative, Katherine Tai said this is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures.

“The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for Covid-19 vaccines,” she said in a statement.