Only 30% of medicines used in Sub-Saharan Africa are locally produced. Africa produces less than 0.1% of the world’s vaccines; in a little over a year, the continent has spent billions of dollars importing vaccines to tackle the COVID-19 crisis. South Africa alone has spent over $600 million and estimates to incur a total expense of $1.33 billion to vaccinate the majority of its population. You might ask, why don’t we just make our vaccine, cut importation costs, boost foreign exchange and expand our scientific research ecosystem in one breath. Well, It’s not that easy.
The idea of local vaccine production is not novel to Nigeria; the Federal Vaccine Production Laboratory, Yaba that was active for over five decades is a testament to this. According to a 1987 technical consultancy report, the vaccine lab produced 316,000 doses of yellow fever vaccine in 1978, reaching a peak of more than 500,000 doses in 1987. Between 1940 and 1991, the facility was already exporting smallpox, rabies, and yellow fever vaccines to Cameroon, Central Africa, and other African countries. By 1991 however, the vaccine production center was shut down by the Federal Government on the grounds of rehabilitation; renovation, and upgrade of facilities.
30 years later, the Federal Vaccine Production Laboratory lies defunct, overrun by weeds technically still under ‘rehabilitation’.
Importation of pharmaceutical products takes a chunk of any nation’s total yearly expenditure. In 2014 alone, African governments purchased almost $900 million (€790.7 million) worth of vaccines for basic child immunization. Since the COVID crisis, most of these countries have slid further into debt worth billions of dollars to finance vaccination schemes despite the lower rates given by GAVI and other health organizations. On the other hand, the western pharmaceutical industry is prospering off vaccine sales. Pfizer made $3.5 billion out of the vaccine in the first quarter of 2021 alone. Moderna expects to make over $19 billion this year. While the central focus might be to bring the global community back to perfect health, these top vaccine-producing countries are boosting their economies in the same breath.
The big question is, why hasn’t Nigeria tapped into this market?
There are several limitations to local vaccine production in Nigeria. At the core of it is the Federal Government’s dilly-dallying. Four years ago, after the yellow fever and meningitis outbreak, the FG signed an MoU with May and Baker Nigeria Plc to enable mass production of yellow fever vaccines. Under this agreement, the federal government was to own 49% of the venture and the equity contribution from both parties would go into setting up the joint facility, Biovaccines Ltd.
While the project is yet to set off since then, May & Baker says that “Yaba facilities are being resuscitated for renewal of production of yellow fever and measles vaccines with plans for an ultra-modern vaccine plant in Ota, Ogun State,” May & Baker’s website says about the project.
It is important to also acknowledge the advancements in Nigeria’s phytomedicine scene. Phytomedicine or simply put plant medicine is
Another major challenge is the lack of investment and funding. A sustainable funding source is most crucial to kickstarting and ensuring the continuity of a large-scale project of this magnitude. Facilitating infrastructural and human capacity development required for its smooth sail would require billions of dollars in investment and government allocated funds. But considering Nigeria’s precarious economic position it’s no surprise as to why none of the vaccine production projects have officially kicked off. Nonetheless, seeing that early this year the government, through the Ministry of Finance, approved a N10 billion fund to support domestic vaccine production to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps we might be hopeful.
Licensing and patent policies are also concerns. These laws have to be implemented by the Federal Government in collaboration with the owners of a patent to ensure that under national emergencies like COVID-19, companies can effectively roll out vaccine products under this license. The problem with the execution of such a policy is the government’s affinity for abrupt pronouncements; a characteristic that many investors frown upon and has made many projects short-lived.
These roadblocks prevent Nigeria and perhaps Africa in general from contending with top vaccine-production countries. But with a strong commitment to achieving this goal, developing an indigenous vaccine is not a far-fetched idea.
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