EXCLUSIVE In boost for Africa, Senegal aims to make COVID shots next year

Senegal could begin producing COVID-19 vaccines next year under an agreement with Belgian biotech company Univercells that aims to fuel Africa’s drug-making ambitions, a source involved in funding the project told Reuters .

While wealthy countries reopen after securing vaccine supplies early, African nations are still struggling to get vaccinations. On a continent of 1.3 billion people, only about 7 million are fully vaccinated.

The collaboration underscores the opportunities created by a global push to channel money and technology into production on a continent that makes only 1% of the vaccines it needs.

In April, Univercells announced that it had signed a letter of intent to collaborate with the Pasteur Institute in the Senegalese capital, Dakar. The source shared details of the proposal that were not made public.

Under the agreement, the Pasteur Institute would use the vaccine production technology developed by Univercells to deliver COVID-19 vaccine syringes to countries across West Africa.

The institute will begin packaging and distributing vaccines made by Univercells in Belgium early next year, the source who helped fund the collaboration told Reuters.

Univercells would move its entire production line to Senegal in the second half of 2022, the source said, adding that the company will train local staff so they can eventually run the operation.

When asked about the timeframe for the project, Kate Antrobus, Univercells’ chief investment officer, confirmed that it could send vaccine doses to Senegal early next year.

She declined to comment on the exact date for a full vaccine production line in Senegal, but commented on the stated schedules, “I don’t think they’re unreasonable.”

The timing depends on whether Univercells receives regulatory approval for a vaccine production site in Belgium. Antrobus said that was to be expected “every day now”.

Institut Pasteur’s director Amadou Sall declined to comment on the schedule or size of the project, but said the facility was working with donors for funding.

“The political will is great, I’m optimistic. But it’s not about dynamism, it’s about creating a real opportunity,” he said.

It is not yet clear which vaccine will be delivered to Senegal, but Antrobus said the site in Belgium would be able to produce a class of so-called viral vector COVID-19 vaccines such as those developed by Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.N), AstraZeneca (AZN.L), Russia’s Sputnik V and China’s Cansino.

“If COVID wears off amazingly over the next year … the same capacity could be used for other viruses,” Antrobus said.

Univercells also has its own COVID-19 vaccine candidate being developed with German company Leukocare and Italian company ReiThera, which has completed phase II trials. She is looking for funding to carry out Phase III, which the Italian government has agreed to fund.

300 MILLION CANS IN THE NEXT YEAR

The Senegalese Pasteur Institute is the only facility in Africa currently producing a vaccine – a yellow fever vaccine – that is pre-qualified by the World Health Organization, which requires manufacturers to meet strict international standards.

The pre-qualification enables institutions to supply bulk buyers such as the UN children’s aid organization UNICEF.

Donors, including the United States and the European Union, are queuing to fund an expansion of the institute to accommodate COVID-19 vaccines, the fundraising source said.

A call by the institute for initial funding of $ 10 million has been oversubscribed, the source said.

A UK government-funded cost analysis conducted for the Pasteur Institute and viewed by the same source said the project would cost approximately $ 200 million based on a goal of getting 300 million doses of COVID by the end of next year 19 vaccine to manufacture.

Funding depends on whether the institute has committed buyers. According to a cost analysis, the project would be economically viable if it produced vaccines other than COVID-19 so that it can continue to function after the pandemic.

STRATEGIC PLAN

Africa’s struggle to secure vaccine supplies has exposed its vulnerability to health crises and led governments to find ways to boost drug and vaccine production.

These efforts are now gaining traction among affluent countries.

The European Union announced last month it would invest at least € 1 billion in building production centers in Africa, with Senegal, South Africa, Rwanda, Morocco and Egypt among the leading candidates.

The South African Biovac Institute told Reuters it had contacted the French and German governments and pharmaceutical companies to produce 30 million COVID-19 vaccines annually.

The South African company Aspen Pharmacare is already producing vaccinations for the J&J vaccine on site.

The EU plan, in coordination with the African Union, aims to strengthen drug regulators in Africa, train Africans in the skills needed to expand the pharmaceutical industry, and support companies that manufacture materials and components.

The plan will look at countries that “can act quickly and that have the political capital to move forward,” said John Nkengasong, director of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Africa’s $ 1.3 billion vaccine market could grow up to $ 5.4 billion by 2030 due to population growth and the availability of new vaccines, US consultancy McKinsey and Company said in an April report.

There is still a long way to go, say experts.

In addition to funding needs, governments and regulators need to facilitate technology transfer to Africa and reduce risks through public-private partnerships.

“These are really mid- to long-term goals, so you set for at least a year or two,” said Chema Triki of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. “It’s not just about COVID. Africa needs to be prepared for the next pandemic.”

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