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African Union urged to build capabilities to close vaccination gap

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African Union member states must manufacture COVID-19 vaccines, according to Africa Health 2021 speakers, yet this will require strong political will.

The African Union must come closer to leading the continent towards a better future by ensuring technology transfer from abroad and building capabilities within member states, urged speakers at Africa Health 2021 during the session Vaccination challenges and opportunities during and post-pandemic on day four of the event. 

To date, 15 countries across Africa have vaccinated just 10 percent of their population, owing to challenges including “conflict zones” complicating delivery.

However, speakers also voiced concerns over vaccine nationalism and global pharmaceutical “profiting”. 

“While the world is looking for boosters, less than 3.1 percent have actually received their first dose, and many in Africa are actually yet to receive even those - so we have to ask ourselves if there is vaccine equity,” said Dr Pamela Jackson-Ajayi, President and founder of Healthcare Federation of Nigeria.

“We have to ask how we can ensure that COVID-19 vaccines are distributed fairly,” she emphasised. 

Dr Ajayi said that the continent needed to look at how to produce their own vaccines. 

Dr Geofrey Makenga, vaccinologist and epidemiologist from the National Institute for Medical Research in Tanzania, agreed, saying that with most vaccines arriving in Africa 10 to 20 years later (“the current pandemic just highlighted the existing gap”), the only way to close the gap was for Africa to manufacture its own.

Africa’s governments – the most important stakeholder in his view - must demonstrate the political will to enable this, he continued, while bankers and businesses may also play their part in investing in vaccine creation. 

Dr Ahmed Ogwell, Deputy Director African Center for Disease Control, based in Kenya, stated that “it’s difficult to look at the world as one” while adding that Africa needed to do “things in a big and bold way”. 

Dr Bartholomew Akanmori, Lead - Vaccine Research, Regulation, and Safety, African Vaccine Regulatory Forum (AVAREF), meanwhile said that it was not enough to provide vaccines into countries – they had to get into people. 

African countries will not meet the vaccination targets set out this year, he said, describing the continent’s infrastructure as “poor”, and health systems as “fragile”. People are also afraid to take the vaccine, and so there is also vaccine hesitancy. 

Dr Akanmori called for a strong regulatory system and regulatory alignment, while a feasibility study should cover every aspect of vaccine and product manufacturing.  “You need strong political commitment,” he recommended. “Then you need to change the environment, and provide incentives, and then relax laws to enable them.”

Dr Ajayi highlighted the issue of incentivising how patents on vaccines are developed, describing access to essential vaccines as a human right. 

“The patents system disproportionately benefits patent holders in developed countries,” she said. “There is a need for us to really work together and ensure that we need to engage them.” 

Patent countries have argued that the cost of R&D adds to the factor of why the patent is kept, she continued, suggesting that sanctions should be considered against those not sharing the technology, since otherwise “nations and continents of ours are at risk”.

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