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Consequences of Africa's Dependence on Foreign Vaccines and Drugs

Consequences of Africa's Dependence on Foreign Vaccines and Drugs

Johnson & Johnson was meant to be one of the biggest suppliers of affordable Covid vaccines for Africa, with plans to produce doses locally in South Africa through a deal with manufacturer Aspen Pharmacare. The reality was a devastating disappointment.

Until the day that Africa starts to produce her own drugs and vaccines, Africans will continue losing their lives to preventable and manageable illnesses. When the late Tanzanian President said this in 2020 at the height of Covid-19, he was labelled as a vaccine denier. All he said that Africa should produce her own vaccines. A few weeks after his death in March 2021, the chicken came home to roost in South Africa.

Johnson & Johnson was meant to be one of the biggest suppliers of affordable Covid vaccines for Africa, with plans to produce doses locally in South Africa through a deal with manufacturer Aspen Pharmacare. The reality was a devastating disappointment. Despite South Africa ordering 31 million Johnson & Johnson doses, only around 2 million were actually administered, leaving the population vulnerable to deadly Covid waves.

The reason? Johnson & Johnson was shamelessly exporting millions of doses packaged at Aspen's South African facility for distribution in Europe instead of prioritizing Africa's vaccination needs. This was enabled by unconscionable terms in its contract with South Africa that prohibited export restrictions and shielded Johnson & Johnson from liability.

That, my fellow Africans and friends of Africa, is why all the 54 African Heads of State, together with the African Union and all regional African bodies must prioritize local production in Africa, of all major vaccines and drugs. 

This is not the first time. Western nations enforced export bans to hoard vaccine supplies, leaving poorer countries scrambling. India also prioritized domestic needs over its commitments to the Covax initiative for low-income countries.

COVAX was a historic multilateral effort co-led by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF from 2020 through 2023. During the COVID-19 pandemic, COVAX aimed to accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world. COVAX came to a close on 31 December 2023 (WHO).

Africa was left at the mercy of wealthy nations and profit-driven pharmaceutical companies. In South Africa, overwhelmed hospitals witnessed ‘the greatest man-made failure to protect the population since the AIDS pandemic.’

Clearly, Africa cannot rely on the benevolence of pharma giants or high-income nations to ensure equitable access to life-saving vaccines and treatments. It is a harsh truth, but one that should galvanize African nations to urgently ramp up investment and self-sufficiency in drug and vaccine production capabilities.

For too long, the continent has been hobbled by a dependence on importing the vast majority of its medicines and health products from abroad. This has not only made it vulnerable to shortages, but also driven up costs and delayed access to new treatments. Africa's pharmaceutical industry currently meets just 25-30% of the continent's demand.

That needs to change through ambitious government policies to build cutting-edge pharmaceutical manufacturing and R&D hubs across Africa. Public-private partnerships, technology transfers, and strengthening regulatory frameworks will all be key. Financial commitments are crucial, but so is the development of specialized human capital in science and medicine.

The Covid-19 pandemic cruelly highlighted the consequences of leaving Africa at the back of the vaccine line. Thankfully, it also presented an opportunity to finally shake off a neo-colonial paradigm of dependence on other regions. African self-reliance in vital medicines and healthcare products is not just economically prudent, it is also a moral and public health imperative.

Never again should African lives be so callously cast aside when wealthy nations scramble for limited medical supplies. It is time for a pharmaceutical rebirth led by Africa for the health sovereignty of its 1.3 billion citizens.

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