Moderna’s Entry into African Biotech Strengthens the Global Pharmaceutical Supply Chain

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Medicines for Africa’s Lenias Hwenda examines the significance of Moderna’s USD 500 million investment into African manufacturing, other agreements in place to boost manufacturing capacity on the continent, and why a more equally distributed global pharmaceutical manufacturing network is in the interest of the entire planet.

 

Many Africans welcome the news that Moderna recently entered an agreement to invest USD 500 million to set up a vaccine manufacturing plant with capacity to produce 500 million doses per year in Kenya. Should Moderna’s agreement be implemented, it will add to the growing number of manufacturing facilities operating on the African continent. These facilities will help to improve future security of access to treatment and prevention needs of Africa’s 1.3 billion people who make up 17 percent of the global population and account for 25 percent of the global burden of disease. Regions with comparable size populations like India and China have thousands of manufacturers whereas Africa has a few hundred. Changing the current dynamic of Africa importing 99 percent of vaccines and 95 percent of medicines needs is an urgent task if one considers that Africa’s population will be home to 25 percent of the global population by 2050. Industrial development is the most practical way to meet these needs. Moderna’s decision to produce on African soil is a momentous opportunity that could help increase the continent’s vaccines production from one percent to the continent’s set target of 60 percent by 2040.

 

Changing the current dynamic of Africa importing 99 percent of vaccines and 95 percent of medicines needs is an urgent task if one considers that Africa’s population will be home to 25 percent of the global population by 2050

 

After taking this long for Moderna to reach an agreement to manufacture on African soil after talking about it for quite some time, future implementation of this agreement is not certain. Implementation is conditional on the availability of demand for the vaccine on a continent where 83 percent have not yet received a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Nevertheless, a decision to implement would mean the African biotech and pharmaceutical manufacturing sector gains a strong player. The region has already proven itself attractive to investment in this sector. To date, it has attracted millions of dollars in investment and manufacturers with diverse technologies including mRNA technology to establish operations in countries like Senegal, Rwanda, Egypt, and South Africa. Africa’s own domestic biotech companies like Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines have made tremendous progress which is reason for optimism.

 

Afrigen, an African biotech with mRNA formulation capabilities has developed its own mRNa vaccine that is expected to enter clinical trials in Q4 of 2022. Its Cape Town site is one of six mRNA technology development hubs established by WHO on the African continent. The biotech is already engaged in south-south cooperation with manufacturers with extensive experience in the development and production of vaccines like Sinergium Biotech from Argentina and Bio-Manguinhos/Fiocruz from Brazil at its mRNA Technology Transfer Programme.[1] BioNTech has an MoU to establish mRNA manufacturing facilities in Rwanda and Senegal’s Institut Pasteur de Dakar by 2022.[2] Production of other vaccine technologies like Sinopharm, Sinovac and the J&J vaccines is already underway in Mocorro, Egypt and South Africa.

 

These developments do not diminish the value of Moderna’s decision. Not every manufacturing project that has been initiated on the continent will succeed. It is therefore necessary for the continent to hedge its bets. Furthermore, the continent faces different types of disease threats like ebola, HIV, malaria and chikungunya and many others. Each of these disease may be best suited to different technologies. Already the advanced stage of the pandemic may require second generation vaccines with better capacity to limit transmission. Moderna’s mRNA technology platform is versatile and readily adaptable to different variants that may yet emerge in this pandemic. It can also be easily scaled up, and these characteristics make it a great addition to Africa’s biotech ecosystem alongside those already in existence like Afrigen Biologics and others. Beyond vaccines and therapeutics, Moderna’s technology has potential to add value in other industries like food and agribusiness to promote broader industrial development goals of African economies to create jobs and livelihoods.

 

In a connected world, a global pharmaceutical supply chain that is unable to accommodate the medical needs of an entire continent of 1.3 billion people is bad for everyone

 

The common thread in all of the most recent disease outbreaks of global significance like H5N1 influenza, SARS and COVID-19 is that every time, Africa has been the last in line for access to vaccines and other medical products. Recurrence of this pattern in all these pandemics underscores an undeniable fact. Under the current global production dynamics, Africa’s position is never going to change. It is a fact of life that governments will always seek to meet their own electoral needs first. It is unrealistic on anyone’s part to expect any nation to abandon this expression of self-interest in all its manifestations – vaccine nationalism, export bans, vaccine hoarding, unfair distribution practices, and travel bans.

 

In a connected world, a global pharmaceutical supply chain that is unable to accommodate the medical needs of an entire continent of 1.3 billion people is bad for everyone. It is therefore in everyone’s interest to improve global capacity to manage disease outbreaks of international concern. If countries with manufacturing capabilities will always prioritize their own people, then the only way to have security of access is to have globally distributed pharmaceutical manufacturing. If those without production capacity will always be last in line, then globalizing pharmaceutical and vaccine manufacturing would allow disadvantaged countries like those in Africa not to be almost entirely dependent on charity. Whilst no country anywhere can produce 100 percent of its essential medical product needs, some basic level of production significant enough to meet substantial needs of populations in times of crisis is critical to national and regional security.

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that Africa’s current situation is untenable. It hurts the people and economies of Africa which are an integral part of the global supply chain of many industries which depend on raw materials from the continent. What hurts the African economy reverberates throughout the global economy. Economic shutdowns which have been the primary means of limiting disease transmission in Africa have decimated livelihoods and reversed decades worth of economic development and health gains. Economic activity in Africa contracted by 2 percent in 2020 bringing the region first recession in over 25 years and sinking tens of millions of Africans deeper into poverty in less than 12 months. This is a powerful demonstration that a pandemic is so much more than a health crisis. Health in intricately linked with the entire economy, national security, and social security. African countries cannot protect economic security without protecting health. More trade and investment like that planned by Moderna is what Aáfrica and the world needs. Many Africans hope that Moderna’s agreement will be implemented and bring us one step closer to a secure Africa and a secure world.

 

References

[1] ‘Latin American manufacturers complete first training at mRNA technology transfer Hub in South Africa’, Medicines Patent Pool https://medicinespatentpool.org/story-post/latin-american-manufacturers-complete-first-training-at-mrna-technology-transfer-hub-in-south-africa

[2] Yeshiel Panchia, ‘South African Startup’s mRNA Vaccine From Early Next Year’, Forbes Africa, https://www.forbesafrica.com/current-affairs/2022/02/05/south-african-startups-mrna-vaccine-from-early-next-year/


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