In a contentious reversal of its previous position, the US on May 6 announced its support for a suspension of intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines. The African Union’s public health agency applauded the move, saying the waiver would offer the continent a “unique” opportunity to advance its vaccine manufacturing.
The US’ decision isn’t enough on its own: The IP proposal requires unanimous support from the World Trade Organization’s member countries, and many (including the European Union) remain opposed. But if approved, the waiver would allow poorer countries to begin making vaccines locally, a shift that Africa’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says would give the continent an opportunity to scale its own vaccine manufacturing amid climbing case counts in some countries.
In a press briefing on Thursday, Dr. John Nkengasong, the center’s director, said that “given the severity of what we’re going through,” partnerships and financing for African vaccine manufacturers are key to increasing production.
With more than 4 million Covid-19 cases and over 100,000 deaths from the disease, Africa has been hard-hit by the pandemic. Now, the situation is being exacerbated by a dire shortage of vaccines. For a population of 1.3 billion, the continent has only managed to get 37 million doses.
Currently, five African countries have vaccine production facilities: Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa, and Tunisia. But according to the World Health Organization, there is very little upstream production on the continent, as most of the local companies do packaging and labeling.
Since the pandemic started, there have been efforts to bolster vaccine production in the continent. The African Union partnered with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which runs WHO-backed vaccine program Covax, to build five research centers over the next 15 years that will manufacture vaccines locally. In addition, Rwandan president Paul Kagame is planning to establish the first manufacturing facility for messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines, like those developed by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, on the continent.
Nkengasong acknowledged that the results of an IP waiver on Covid-19 vaccines would not happen “overnight,” and said Africa’s CDC is continuing to focus on getting more vaccines for the continent ASAP. “What we need now, and urgently, is vaccines that we can put in the arms of people,” Nkengasong said, “while developing our own vaccine manufacturing capacity or capabilities.”
Sign up to the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief here for news and analysis on African business, tech, and innovation in your inbox.