After painful Covid-19 lessons, here, steps made to take charge of our destiny

Muthoni Wanyeki

Executive Director Open Society-Africa L. Muthoni Wanyeki.

Photo credit: Pool

1 How would you describe Africa’s pandemic preparedness? What lessons did we learn from Covid-19 that will help us prepare better in future?

One thing that Covid-19 brought home to Africa was our dependence on the Global North for testing, diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. We import 90 per cent of these. At the height of the pandemic, countries in the Global North hoarded these resources, leaving African countries struggling to source their own.

Although Africa is making progress in addressing this dependence, we have to invest more in developing our own capacity for research and development (R&D), innovations and manufacturing. This pandemic showed us the innovative and entrepreneurial energy of young Africans on local production of, for example, personal protective equipment like face masks.

The Africa Centres for Disease Control (Africa CDC), which is part of the Africa Union, has now set up the Partnership for African Vaccine Manufacturing (PAVM) to address the issue of dependence on the Global North by 2030. PAVM will work with African scientists, academic insti-tutions, regulators and value chains to move R&D and innovations to manufacturing and markets.

2. Africa’s reliance on the Global North for vaccines, tests and other treatments had devastating effects at the height of the pandemic. Is independent manufacturing of tests and vaccines now happening on the continent?

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, our governments struggled to source vaccines and treatments for us. This highlights the importance of African R&D and manufacturing to ensure self-reliance in future. This is why the steps taken by Africa CDC through PAVM to increase our manufacturing capacity are so important. And we are seeing progress through a number of independent manufacturing initiatives that are currently underway in Africa:

•We have supported Institut Pasteur de Dakar in Senegal with $1.5m towards R&D on the first vaccine candidate developed in Africa for a neglected, high consequence infection (Rift Valley Fever) to boost pandemic response.

This is one of a series of vaccine manufacturing projects launched across Africa to make us less dependent on the Global North. Its new manufacturing facility, the Manufacturing in Africa for Dis-ease Immunisation and Building Autonomy (Madiba), could start producing Covid-19 vaccines in the coming months. When it reaches full capacity, the facility is expected to churn out 300 million doses annually, and they won’t all be for Covid-19.

•There are also steps towards manufacturing oxygen in Africa to move us away from overreliance on BOC, the expensive British supplier. Our social impact investment in Hewatele for affordable oxygen in East Africa will provide lessons for the continent.

•We are also working with Afrigen in South Africa to develop the first African Covid-19 vaccine using mRNA, which can also be used to produce vaccines for other neglected tropical diseases.

These are just a few examples of where we’ve directed our own support. However, we don’t need every single African country to produce vaccines. What we need are a few centres that can produce for and supply the whole continent.

3. Is Africa ready for the next pandemic?

There are ways in which we are prepared and ways in which we are not. Based on the experience of managing Ebola in West Africa, we really do have a strong regional policy and surveillance body, the Africa CDC. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Africa CDC, through its regional coordinating centres, had alerted and began working with national governments on protocols for Covid-19 containment and management. This happened really early, before the rest of the world shut down.

But we quickly realised our dependence on the Global North. Additionally, the basic state of most of our healthcare systems were still wanting considering the low budgetary investments in healthcare, medics and access to treatment facilities.

So while we did quite well in terms of preparedness and surveillance, the ground was not fully prepared across the continent. There was a mixed picture. The lack of preparedness that characterised many national responses remains largely unaddressed.

Financing is still inadequate, our health infrastructure remains weak and our healthcare workers are still underpaid,  while our investment in R&D, innovation and manufacturing remains inadequate.

Although we are seeing progress in some areas, especially R&D and manufacturing, more effort needs to go into addressing these challenges to say we’re adequately prepared for the next pandemic.

4. What is the role of research and development in Africa’s pandemic preparedness and what examples do we currently have?

Investment in R&D is critical to building our capacity to respond to new pandemics. Even though Africa accounts for just two percent of glob-al research output, scientists across the continent are trying to change this. Some examples:

• At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Disease in Nigeria generated the first sequence of SARS-CoV-2 on the continent — in an unprecedented speed of 72 hours.

• The Institut Pasteur in Senegal is developing a Rift Valley Fever vaccine candidate, the first such immunisation drug designed and developed in Africa.

• The Open Society Foundation has also invested in a Belgium-based company, Univercells, which is working directly with the World Health Organization’s manufacturing hub, Afrigen, to develop the first African-owned Covid-19 vaccine.

• The African Research Universities Alliance (Arua) launched its three Vaccine Development Research Hubs for Western, Eastern and Southern Africa to build our capacity for vaccine development research. Each Hub brings together researchers from five or six universities.

5. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was clear that Africa was on its own as countries in the Global North prioritised their own people. What lessons can Global North actors draw from this and how can they better support Africa to prepare for future pandemics?

If someone is oppressing you, you do not beg the oppressor to stop. Take charge and become self-reliant. At the continental level, we have learnt our lesson on taking care of our own needs and are taking steps towards realising this.