Grant Aims to Strengthen Vaccine Production in Africa

Commentary
Article

By strengthening the continent's health care infrastructure, promoting local vaccine production, and facilitating global collaborations, the grant represents an important milestone toward better health care for all Africans.

The recent announcement of a US$40 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support production of new messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccines in Africa presents opportunities to boost clinical trials and strengthen a potential foundation of the continent’s health care landscape. An mRNA vaccine uses a copy of a molecule called messenger RNA (mRNA) to produce an immune response.1

African doctor visits an elderly patient and they converse during the medical examination. Health care in africa concept

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Closing the Gap in Vaccine Equity

Africa has long grappled with concerns over clinical trials, particularly in the context of vaccine development. The perception that Africans are exploited as subjects in drug testing has persisted, despite the fact that less than 3% of global clinical trials take place in Africa.2 This underrepresentation is largely due to a lack of capacity, infrastructure and access for such trials. With a rapidly growing population of almost 1.5 billion people, opportunities abound.

Clinical trials are essential for modern medicine, allowing scientists to rigorously assess the safety and efficacy of pharmaceutical products.3 The global clinical trials market is valued at over $48.2 billion in 2023 and expected to grow to $73.2 billion within the next 5 years.4 The vast majority of trials are conducted in Western countries.

The $40 million grant Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support mRNA vaccine development will contribute to addressing these issues, with a primary focus on improving vaccine equity in Africa.5 This commitment acknowledges the need for Africa to take an active role in vaccine development, production, and distribution, thus ensuring timely access to life-saving vaccines.

A Catalyst for Health Care Innovation

The grant allocates $5 million each to Institut Pasteur in Dakar and Biovac in South Africa, which will employ an mRNA research and manufacturing platform developed by Belgium-based Quantoom Biosciences.5 An additional $20 million will be provided to Quantoom “to further advance the technology and lower costs” and the remaining $10 million is earmarked for companies yet to be named.5

Unlike previous COVID-19 mRNA vaccines that received expedited emergency approval, future vaccines developed in Africa are likely to follow a more extended timeline of 3 to 7 years. This approach aims to ensure the safety and effectiveness of vaccines tailored to the health care needs of the African population.

By investing in an ecosystem for pharmaceutical research and vaccine production, the grant sets the stage to strengthen back and forward linkages for Africa to address future health care challenges with increased self-reliance.

Empowering Local Vaccine Production

Africa has long relied on foreign sources for vaccines, often experiencing delays and difficulties in accessing immunizations.6 The grant signifies a shift toward local vaccine production and a reduction in dependence on external sources. This transition aligns with the African Union's Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Plan for Africa, which seeks to promote domestic pharmaceutical production.7

Promoting Collaborations

The grant also provides a bridge for collaborations between African institutions and global health care leaders. These partnerships can facilitate knowledge exchange, technology transfer, and capacity building. Established institutions such as the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Pasteur Institute, and the University of California, San Francisco, have already developed productive collaborations with African counterparts. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's grant is poised to strengthen connections of this nature and create a network of healthcare experts working together to improve healthcare in Africa.

Visionary Future for African Health Care

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's $40 million grant is a substantial step forward for African health care. It underscores a commitment to vaccine equity, health care innovation, and self-reliance. The grant offers Africa an opportunity to strengthen vaccine development and production, fostering an ecosystem for health care innovations that meet local needs.

Investments of this nature can prove transformative and represent more than just financial support—they provide beacons of hope for a healthier Africa. By strengthening the continent's health care infrastructure, promoting local vaccine production, and facilitating global collaborations, the grant represents an important milestone toward better health care for all Africans.

References

1. Schlake T, Thess A, Fotin-Mleczek M, Kallen KJ. Developing mRNA-vaccine technologies. RNA Biol. 2012;9(11):1319-1330. doi:10.4161/rna.22269

2. FHI Clinical. Increasing Clinical Research in Africa Presents An Opportunity to Address Global Health Challenges. Accessed November 29, 2023. https://www.fhiclinical.com/increasing-clinical-research-in-africa-presents-an-opportunity-to-address-global-health-challenges/

3. Jager W. The importance of clinical trials in advancing medical research. Annals of Clinical Trials and Vaccines Research. 2023;13(3).

4. Markets and Markets. Clinical Trials Market by Phase (Phase I, II, III), Service Type (Laboratory, Analytical Testing, Patient Recruitment, Protocol Designing), Therapeutic Area (Oncology, Cardiology, Neurology), and Application (Vaccine, mAbs, CGT) – Global Forecast to 2028. September 2023. Accessed November 29, 2023. https://www.marketsandmarkets.com/Market-Reports/clinical-trials-market-405.html?gclid=Cj0KCQjw4bipBhCyARIsAFsieCyely7rdTVx0I35EsURLb3ljVBsoG4tehKqnI5oDmYgCscG9BR8y64aAlaWEALw_wcB

5. Candid. Gates Foundation commits $40 million for mRNA vaccines in Africa. October 14, 2023. Accessed November 29, 2023. https://philanthropynewsdigest.org/news/gates-foundation-commits-40-million-for-mrna-vaccines-in-africa

6. Sidibé M. Vaccine inequity: Ensuring Africa is not left out. Brookings. January 24, 2022. Accessed November 29, 2023. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/vaccine-inequity-ensuring-africa-is-not-left-out/

7. Byaruhanga J. The Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Plan for Africa. AUDA-NEPAD. August 24, 2020. Accessed November 29, 2023. https://www.nepad.org/news/pharmaceutical-manufacturing-plan-africa#:~:text=The%20PMPA%20is%20designed%20to,benefits%20through%20sustainability%2C%20competitiveness%2C%20and

About the Author

Christopher Burke is the Managing Director of WMC Africa, a public relations and marketing agency based in Kampala, Uganda. Christopher has a strong background in communications, public health, governance and development with 30 years’ experience based in Africa and East Asia.

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