Vaccines: it’s safe to say that no one living today has ever thought quite so much about these invaluable substances. Rollouts of COVID-19 vaccines are well underway in some countries, especially those with large domestic manufacturing capacity. Many African countries have received their initial shipments from the COVAX facility
and from bilateral deals, in some cases months earlier than in previous pandemics such as H1N1, but on the whole Africa has struggled to secure timely access to adequate supplies. Africa relies heavily on vaccine imports: the continent imports almost 99 percent of its routine vaccines today. The COVID-19 pandemic has revived a long-standing question in African and global circles: What would it take for Africa to manufacture its own vaccines?
The idea has never been far from leaders’ minds; outbreaks of Ebola in 2014 and 2018, as well as regular threats from other Africa-specific diseases such as Lassa fever or Rift Valley fever, are vivid reminders. There would be several benefits of homegrown manufacturing: public-health resilience in times like these, of course; greater ability to address Africa-specific diseases rapidly; better preparedness for the next epidemic or pandemic; and, on the economic side, less strain on trade balances, improvement in the skilled labor pool, and an easing of foreign-exchange requirements. Other emerging markets, especially those with large domestic populations such as Brazil, India, and Indonesia, have built successful domestic vaccine industries.
Despite these clear benefits, cost concerns, inconsistent access to capital, uncertainty about demand, and other issues have kept most African countries and companies from venturing into vaccine production over the past decade. Today, however, four factors, spurred by the current pandemic, may be changing the calculus.
The impact of COVID-19 and Africa-specific outbreaks. African and global public-health leaders do not want African countries to be last in line for vital supplies, which has arguably happened recently, as well as during the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. Leaders are increasingly aware of the importance of health security as a critical tool for securing the continent’s development of and calls for investments into vaccine manufacturing.
Strong demand growth. In our estimates, the public market for vaccines in Africa could rise from $1.3 billion today to between $2.3 billion and $5.4 billion by 2030, depending on the scenario. While Africa’s population is growing faster than that of most other regions, significant immunization coverage gaps remain, and new products, such as vaccines for Lassa fever or malaria, could be introduced and used widely on the continent.
Evolving economics driven by new technologies. Many worry about Africa’s production costs, which could indeed be higher than in today’s vaccine powerhouse locations (such as India—which makes approximately 70 percent of Africa’s vaccines today). But the fast pace of technology innovation that we have seen in recent years at every step of the vaccine-development and -manufacturing value chain may mean that production costs are no longer a showstopper. Small-scale disposable technologies, high-density bioreactors, and…