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Technology Transfer Critical to Revolutionizing Africa’s Pharma Industry

BioNTainers, facilities equipped to manufacture a range of mRNA-based vaccines have been inaugurated in Rwanda in December 2023. Credit: Aimable Twahirwa/IPS

BioNTainers, facilities equipped to manufacture a range of mRNA-based vaccines have been inaugurated in Rwanda in December 2023. Credit: Aimable Twahirwa/IPS

KIGALI, Jan 8 2024 (IPS) - An agreement signed between the Rwandan government and the Africa Pharmaceutical Technology Foundation (APTF) gives impetus to Africa’s domestic industry with the hope of helping the continent tackle vaccine inequity and fill the critical gap in vaccine manufacturing.

The agreement to operationalize the foundation was signed in Kigali, Rwanda, in late 2023.

What is important, according to stakeholders, is to focus efforts on building a resilient and self-reliant pharmaceutical industry for the continent. This became apparent during COVID-19, when, for example, COVAX, a multilateral mechanism for equitable global access to COVID-19 vaccines, helped lower-income economies achieve two-dose coverage of 57 percent, compared to the global average of 67 percent.

Both officials and scientists take delight in pointing out that the benefit of having such an initiative is to close the vaccine equity gap between African countries and the world’s developed nations.

During the implementation phase, the African Development Bank (ADB) has committed to investing up to USD 3 billion over the next decade in the development of pharmaceutical products.

The foundation, which is ready to hit the ground running in January 2024, will dedicate its core mandate to addressing some of the common challenges facing African indigenous pharmaceutical companies, including weak human and institutional capacities and low technical capacity for using and applying new technologies.

“The Foundation was a pledge that Africa will have what it needs to build its own health defense system, which must include a thriving African pharmaceutical industry and a quality healthcare infrastructure, ADB President Dr Akinwumi Adesina said.

These solutions, according to experts, aim to close technical capacity gaps in their use and lack the ability to focus on the production of basic active pharmaceutical ingredients for drugs or antigens for vaccines.

Professor Padmashree Gehl Sampath, Chief Executive Officer of the APTF, told IPS that access to know-how, technologies, and processes for manufacturing pharmaceutical products is clearly needed on the continent to ensure the sustainability of financial investments.

She, however, points out that, with the current move to ensure the sustainability and reliability of the domestic pharmaceutical industry in Africa, it is not enough just to have financial, infrastructural, strategic, and regulatory support.

“There is a need for a clear and coherent focus on technology transfer and knowledge sharing for capacity building and diversification within the pharmaceutical value chain,” she said in an exclusive interview.

While technology is described as the main transformative tool that will enable the development of a competitive pharmaceutical industry in Africa, Sampath stresses the need to build policy capacity to facilitate the sector.

According to her, this can be done by implementing the flexibilities contained in the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property and then also enabling local companies to access domestic markets.

In a move to overcome these challenges, the foundation’s work received a major boost with a memorandum of understanding signed in December 2023 in Kigali, Rwanda, to partner with the European Investment Bank.

The European Investment Bank will be a partner in the foundation’s “regional biosimilars program for the production and innovation of relevant biosimilars in Africa and to facilitate the creation of common active pharmaceutical ingredients parks in any chosen specific sub-region of Africa,” the organization said in a press release.

According to Sampath, there is a need to remove barriers to domestic innovation in Africa.

“We need to work with our universities and public research institutions to transform them into centers of excellence,” she said.

During the implementation phase, the first modular elements of the German company’s factory, BioNTech, based on shipping containers, were delivered to the Kigali construction site in March and were then assembled to form the so-called BioNTainers that were inaugurated in December 2023.

The company, which developed the most widely used COVID-19 vaccine in the Western world with its U.S. partner Pfizer, developed a plan in 2022 to allow African countries to produce its Comirnaty-branded vaccine under the supervision of BioNTech.

BioNTech said the initial vaccine factory could, over the next few years, be part of a wider supply network spanning several African countries, including Senegal and South Africa.

At the time BioNTech announced plans to expand into Africa, the shipment of coronavirus vaccine doses manufactured in the West to the continent had been delayed, which had been the subject of much criticism.

“The African Union has come together to make a firm commitment not to find ourselves in this situation again,” Rwandan President Paul Kagame said at the inauguration ceremony of the plant site located in Masoro, a suburb of Kigali.

The company, which developed the most widely used COVID-19 vaccine in the Western world with its U.S. partner Pfizer, developed a plan in 2022 to allow African countries to produce its Comirnaty-branded vaccine under the supervision of BioNTech.

“What BionTech’s partnership with Africa demonstrates is that vaccine technology can be democratized, but we could not have reached this point without a wider set of partnerships.” Kagame said.

Gelsomina Vigliotti, Vice President at the European Investment Bank, said that the bank is committed to working with its partners to strengthen public health and health innovation across Africa.

“Strengthening access to finance is essential to scaling up pharmaceutical investment and innovation across Africa,” Vigliotti said.

An important manifestation of Africa’s scientific and technological innovation capability, according to experts, is the application of innovations to its pharmaceutical industry development.

The newly-established plant, located in the suburb of Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali, is expected to start by producing 50 million vaccines, but production will increase depending on the demand for mRNA-based vaccine candidates to address malaria and tuberculosis.

But researchers and policymakers argue that trust and cooperation are critical for the successful implementation of this innovation.

The latest estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO) show that industrial development should be combined with national policy for universal health coverage so that local vaccine production can address local health needs.

Before the inauguration of the BionTech factory in Rwanda, there were fewer than 10 African manufacturers with vaccine production, which are based in five countries: Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa, and Tunisia.

The capability to produce vaccines in Africa, according to the UN agency, requires a fully integrated approach, pulling together some key elements including finance, skills development, regulatory facilities, and technology know-how.

IPS UN Bureau Report

 


  
 
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