As biotech firms Moderna and BioNTech advance plans to produce vaccines in Africa, the race to find the industry’s best locations on the continent is heating up with Senegal, South Africa and Rwanda emerging as strong contenders.

But there are many other countries in the running. The continent’s public health agency, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has identified 17 frontrunner locations to support its ambitious goal to ramp-up production in the continent. 

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Vaccine nationalism during the pandemic has highlighted Africa’s vulnerability in importing 99% of its immunisation needs, despite consuming one-quarter of vaccines globally. Many of its governments are now trying to attract manufacturers to improve health security and capitalise on the economic opportunity. 

Africa’s vaccine market was worth $1.3bn in 2020. “Extrapolating that, and excluding Covid-19 vaccines, we are looking at a market size anywhere from $3bn to $6bn a year by 2040,” said McKinsey senior partner Tania Holt.

Where the action is

Which countries become hubs will be steered in part by Africa CDC, which plans to build five manufacturing facilities — one each in the continent’s north, south, east, west and centre. It wants Africa to produce 60% of its routine immunisation needs locally by 2040, up from one percent today. 

But the growing number of private investors wanting a foothold in the burgeoning market will also play a role. That includes Moderna, which is still deciding on where to locate its $500m African mRNA facility.

Patrick Tippoo, executive director of the African Vaccine Manufacturing Initiative, said if the goal is to manufacture vaccines “as fast and with as little effort as possible, then you go to where there is already some action.” Today, there are only a handful of African countries involved in the vaccine value chain. Among them, Senegal is making some of the biggest strides. 

Its Institut Pasteur in Dakar produces yellow fever shots and is building a facility to produce 25 million Covid-19 vaccine doses per month from end-2022. BioNTech’s recent decision to construct Africa’s first mRNA facilities at the institute — plus another in Rwanda — was guided by Africa CDC which has recognised Senegal’s infrastructure readiness.

Other countries with existing activities feature highly in a fDi Benchmark study of the continent’s best locations for vaccine production. South Africa, which ranks third in fDi’s report, has an “advanced programme that can support the entire ecosystem” according to Africa CDC’s senior science advisor Nicaise Ndembi. That is largely thanks to Cape Town-headquartered Biovac which has produced several vaccines for years. Mr Ndembi said in the south it is “clearly the standalone” in its ability to support end-to-end manufacturing. The World Health Organization (WHO) selected the country for Africa’s first tech-transfer hub, which will teach local firms how to manufacture mRNA vaccines.

The continent’s two most populous countries, Ethiopia and Nigeria, rank first and sixth, respectively, buoyed by large domestic markets and free trade agreements. The African Finance Corporation considers Nigeria a strong contender because it is Africa’s biggest consumer of vaccines. “[That] reduces the logistics challenges that are often a factor when it comes to distribution,” a spokesperson said. 

Fourth-ranked Algeria has stepped-up during the pandemic, striking agreements to produce China’s Sinovac and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccines. But Mr Ndembi said “Egypt and Tunisia are more likely to anchor hubs in the north.” Tunisia, ranked second, produces a tuberculosis vaccine while Egypt’s thriving pharma industry has developed a homegrown Covid-19 vaccine which is about to start clinical trials.  

Putting themselves on the map

The 17 candidates shortlisted by Africa CDC for its five facilities include those which, despite having no existing activities, have engaged with international manufacturers or shown strong political support to build capacity. 

Among them, Rwanda is a standout. Its government is investing in its health regulator and Mr Ndembi said it has “a clear vaccine manufacturing plan”. In addition to hosting one of BioNTech’s African mRNA plants, Moderna’s chairman told Reuters that the country is a candidate for its upcoming African facility. Dicky Akanmori, a regional advisor at WHO Africa, said Rwanda “will definitely be involved in vaccine manufacture” using tech transfer and is “very close” to being recognised as ‘ML3’ — the minimum WHO accreditation needed to oversee vaccine manufacturing.  

The only African countries with this accreditation today are Tanzania and Ghana. The latter is another strong contender to build a vaccine industry from scratch. This year, its government pledged $25m to establish a national vaccine institute and launched a roadmap to spur local production.