Why Africa lags behind in medicine production

By Harriet James
Monday, March 29th, 2021
Dr Catherine Karekezi. Photo/PD/Courtesy
In summary

Harriet James @harriet86jim

In comparison to other continents, Africa has been said to have the highest incidence of deaths as a result of infectious diseases, but yet still up to date, has been unable to manufacture its own vaccines.

Now Covid-19 has exposed the continent’s inadequate health facilities and inability to vaccinate its own population in a world with limited stock of the vaccine. 

Presently, according to the World Health Organisation, there are 191 vaccines under development, but sadly none is being manufactured in the continent.

South Africa, Egypt and Kenya participated in trials of vaccines produced in countries such as the UK, US and China.

In an event organised by KELIN, dubbed Regional Dialogue on Utilising Flexibilities in The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement To Promote Access To Medicine (TRIPS) in Kenya and Uganda, professionals in the medical field came together to discuss on the status of drug access together with current scramble for vaccines in both countries. 

“While Kenya, India and South Africa are seeking for a waiver in TRIPS, there is something called vaccine nationalism, where nations are rolling it first in their countries before sending it to African countries.

The logical thing is to bring everyone on board and mobilise people by taking out the barrier, which is intellectual property,” says Dr Paul Ogendi.

The lack of capacity to do this was mentioned as one reasons Africa as a continent cannot produce its vaccine.

Presently, Kenya has about 35 pharmaceutical manufacturing companies and Uganda has 15.

While there have been efforts in both countries to manufacture generic antiretroviral drugs, hepatitis B and non-communicable disease, most local manufacturers are producing below maximum capacity.

“There is an African medicine agency set up by the African Union, but Kenya and Uganda haven’t signed up for it.

Only 18 countries on the continent have. We keep talking about not having numbers or capacity, but imagine if Africans came together in terms of medicine or vaccines.

We are all trying to do our own thing, but what if we pull our resources and try to have a greater bargaining power, we can do much more,” says Dr Catherine Karekezi of Non-Communicable Disease Alliance Kenya.

The biggest barrier in technology transfer is the lack of research and development in developing countries.

The process of making a vaccine is rigorous than creating drugs. Preclinical studies are done not in humans, but in a cell cultured dish to ensure they sequence the right genomes and identify the right proteins to ensure the active ingredients to be used will be safe.

It also ensures the body produces antibodies that will teach our bodies to protect itself. 

The second stage is testing it on animal models, before finally testing it on humans. It assembles many things such as active components that will go to give the set of instructions to our body.

Experts say such a process requires support, and failure of manufacturers, governments to support and create an enabling local environment for technological transfer is less likely to succeed. 

They add that vaccines development also requires a large investment of funding and time.

The burden of some disease is greatest in the developing world, which makes it harder for investors to develop vaccines due to fear that the cost will not be recovered. 

The global vaccine stakeholders also show less preference in investment for vaccine production establishment in Africa.

The diverse political ambitions among African governments make it difficult to predict and access the market, a prerequisite for competitive production.

“Our leadership is the greatest obstacle to vaccine development or any research.

Any development requires heavy government investment before the private sector gets on board, but corruption is something that is a huge issue in Africa,” notes Dr Benson Edagwa.