By Aimable Twahirwa
KIGALI, Jan 25 2023 (IPS)
A few months after German biotechnology company BioNTech announced the establishment of the first-ever local vaccine manufacturing in Rwanda, experts believe the successful implementation of such initiatives across the continent will require countries to acquire know-how while encouraging potential industrial partners in the pharmaceutical industry.
Experts emphasise the need to prioritise technology transfer to revamp Africa’s pharmaceutical industry with a key focus on vaccine manufacturing capacity and building quality healthcare infrastructure.
This is because, while pharmaceutical products are manufactured in countries such as South Africa, Kenya, Morocco and Egypt, the latest estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO) show that the continent currently imports more than 80 percent of its pharmaceutical and medical consumables.
During the forum, which took place recently in Kigali, experts elaborated on some challenges and current opportunities to boost the health prospects of a continent battered for decades by the burden of several diseases and pandemics such as COVID-19, with very limited capacity to produce its medicines and vaccines.
Participants at the forum, which focused mainly on operationalising the first-ever African Pharmaceutical Technology Foundation discussed how the African Union should achieve its target of having 60% of vaccines needed on the continent by 2040.
While the continent imports more than 70% of all the medicines it needs, gulping $14 billion annually, Dr Yvan Butera, Rwandan Minister of State in the Minister of Health, emphasised the need to mobilise additional financial resources for African countries that need them most to procure vaccine.
“The new initiative comes as a solution since most of [African] countries still face a challenge in receiving them on time,” the senior Rwandan Government official told the forum.
As current efforts to expand the manufacturing of essential pharmaceutical products, including vaccines, in developing countries, particularly in Africa, experts argue that concerted efforts to promote technology transfer are urgently needed. According to official estimates, Africa imports more than 70% of all the medicines it needs, gulping $14 billion annually.
Commenting on this situation, Professor Padmashree Gehi Sampath, Special Adviser to the President on Pharmaceuticals and Health, African Development Bank and Director of Global Access in Action, Harvard University, told delegates that technology transfer is critical, and the new initiative will help African countries to look at what are their technology needs.
“Most pharmaceutical companies in Africa are using different kinds of technology (…) it is important to boost their capacity, which has been hampered by intellectual property rights protection and patents on technologies, know-how, manufacturing processes and trade secrets,” the senior bank official told IPS.
Yet Africa’s public health challenges are well known; some experts believe that enhancing access to these technologies for pharmaceutical companies is critical to addressing numerous challenges facing the continent’s pharmaceutical industry.
According to Dr Hanan Balkhy, Deputy Director General World Health Organization (WHO), the continent faces many challenges before it can produce its medicines.
“Africa suffers from the repetitive occurrence of preventable diseases and epidemics, and the large part of medicines and vaccines to treat or prevent these diseases are imported from outside the continent,” Balkhy told delegates.
When fully established, the African Pharmaceutical Technology Foundation, which the bank has already approved, will be staffed with world-class experts on pharmaceutical innovation and development, intellectual property rights, and health policy.
The foundation also has the mandate as a transparent intermediator advancing and brokering the interests of the African pharmaceutical sector with global and other southern pharmaceutical companies to share IP-protected technologies, know-how and patented processes.
Dr Precious Matsoso, a co-chair of the international negotiating body of the WHO on Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response, stressed the importance of ensuring the African health system is resilient.
“Establishing the African Pharmaceutical Technology Foundation, by the bank, is a milestone to address these barriers we are facing, such as health equity,” she said.
Although the foundation is being established under the auspices of the African Development Bank, it will operate independently and raise funds from various stakeholders, including governments, development finance institutions, and philanthropic organisations.
Dr Richard Hatchett, Chief Executive Officer of the Coalition of Epidemic Preparedness Initiative (CEPI), told delegates that this foundation was initiated in timeously since Africa needs to learn from the lessons pandemic, which can be an important step to build resilience of its health system.
“These health care innovative solutions will help in saving lives on the continent,” he said.
So far, Rwanda has been selected to host the African Pharmaceutical Technology Foundation. A common benefits entity, the foundation will have its own governance and operational structures. It will also promote and broker alliances between foreign and African pharmaceutical companies.
However, some experts also emphasised the need to prioritise the African patent pharmaceutical industry to implement the new initiative successfully.
Professor Carlos Correa, Executive Director, South Centre, Geneva, pointed out that it was important for the region to have their own framework.
“Manufacturing capacity [in Africa] is there, but technology capacity is crucial to develop vaccines for Africa (….) Timely transfer of technology is also important,” he said.
During the forum, some panellists also stressed the need to establish a partnership between African pharmaceutical companies with their counterparts from other continents, such as Europe.
According to Brigit Pickel, Director General for Africa in the Germany Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, this partnership is important for vaccine manufacturing. It applies to the production and supply of other pharmaceutical products.
“We recognise the importance of promoting local pharmaceutical products across the value chain in Africa,” she said.
Apart from technology transfer, Professor Fredrick Abbott, Edward Ball Eminent Scholar Professor, Florida State University, USA, pointed out that this initiative cannot work without sustainable funding.
“Countries need to develop domestic resources because providing funding is a critical step to ensure the continuity of promising clinical development programs of vaccines and drugs,” Abbott told IPS.
IPS UN Bureau Report