pharmaceuticals The Pearl Dream Inc

Time to focus on local pharmaceutical development

Our Reporter

September 7, 2023

Sir: The convergence of pharmaceutical industrial development and healthcare improvement is unveiling a mutually beneficial synergy across various African nations, including Nigeria. This virtuous cycle is driven by shared goals between local health system stakeholders and industrialists. As healthcare providers strive to reduce supply shortages and advocate for increased public funding, local industrial players are eyeing expanded markets. This symbiotic relationship envisions a future where health system strengthening and pharmaceutical industrial development go hand in hand.

A “local health” policy perspective forms the bedrock of this approach. By identifying local health priorities and leveraging existing industrial capacities, this perspective fosters synergies between health system investments and industrial endeavours.

Geography, specifically the location of pharmaceutical expertise and manufacturing capacity, plays a crucial role in ensuring health security. African governments, along with inter-governmental organizations like the African Union Commission (AUC), the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), and ECOWAS must actively seek ways to enhance their domestic skills and capabilities. Many policymakers view pharmaceutical manufacturing as a focal point for bolstering long-term health security.

While a significant portion of pharmaceutical manufacturing in Sub-Saharan Africa primarily involves basic formulations using imported Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs), there are encouraging signs of increasing technological advancements, accompanied by the necessary scientific and technical know-how. Scientists and manufacturers are actively searching for niche areas to initiate API manufacturing. Economies of scale are of paramount importance in API production compared to formulations, making it challenging for smaller-scale producers to compete. Consequently, potential market niches may include the production of low-dose APIs, especially for the African market.

The motivation to develop national and regional capabilities in Sub-Saharan Africa is particularly pronounced in the context of pandemic medications and vaccines. There’s a prevailing assumption that in a global pandemic, high-income countries prioritize the treatment and protection of their own populations first. Vaccines and immunization programmes are vital components of saving lives and strengthening healthcare systems. However, nearly all vaccines used in Africa are imported.

A study by the Vaccine Manufacturing and Procurement in Africa (AVMI/UNIDO/WHO) revealed that 37 African countries procure all their vaccines through UNICEF, with Africa accounting for around 60% of UNICEF’s total vaccine procurement. Notable exceptions include Senegal’s Institut Pasteur Dakar, which produces a WHO-prequalified yellow fever vaccine, and South Africa’s Biovac, a local public-private partnership engaged in late-stage vaccine development and the production of vaccine vials using imported APIs.

Developing vaccine manufacturing capabilities faces significant challenges due to intense global competition from major producers and extensive pooled purchasing by UNICEF with the support of development aid funding. The GAVI Alliance is the largest funder in this regard, often requiring UNICEF procurement for the vaccines it funds. Nevertheless, the AVMI study underscores health security as the primary reason for exploring the potential for shifting manufacturing capabilities to Africa, followed by addressing specific unmet needs and pandemic preparedness.

Vaccine production is inherently risky, featuring high barriers to market entry and extended lead times for product development. Nevertheless, the same study suggests that over the next 10 to 20 years, there is potential for local vaccine production, given projected population growth. It recommends the establishment of regional hubs as the most viable strategy, albeit one that requires political and technical support—an area where AVMI actively advocates and provides technological assistance.

Producing vaccines and biological products represents a significant challenge for local production, necessitating investments ranging from $60 to $100 million to establish a manufacturing facility. However, the benefits, including elevated skill levels and improved medium-term national health security, are substantial. Expanding vaccine manufacturing efforts would build upon existing capabilities in biological product manufacturing and extensive clinical trial experience in countries like South Africa. Initiatives would require technology transfer, potentially through joint ventures, and would also depend on government and philanthropic support.

While public health’s focus has expanded to encompass social determinants, the role of industrial development in shaping health outcomes can no longer be overlooked. The interplay between pharmaceutical industrialization and healthcare is an essential element of creating robust African health systems. As African nations invest in industrialization, the global health community’s support is invaluable in extracting optimal benefits for public health.

Nigeria, with its vibrant potential and rich resources, stands at a crossroads of health and industrial growth. By forging stronger linkages between these two agendas, the nation has an opportunity to rewrite its healthcare narrative. This partnership could not only propel Nigeria toward achieving SDG 3 and universal health care but also contribute to its economic development and global standing.

•Victor Okeke,

Centre for Social Justice, Abuja.

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