Six African countries have been chosen to establish their own mRNA vaccine production, the World Health Organization said Friday, with the continent largely shut out of access to Covid jabs.
Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia were selected as the first recipients of technology from the WHO's global mRNA vaccine hub, in a push to ensure Africa can make its own jabs to fight the Covid and other diseases.
"No other event like the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that reliance on a few companies to supply global public goods is limiting, and dangerous," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
"The best way to address health emergencies and reach universal health coverage is to significantly increase the capacity of all regions to manufacture the health products they need."
Tedros has continually called for equitable access to vaccines in order to beat the pandemic, and rails against the way wealthy nations have hogged doses, leaving Africa lagging behind other continents in the global vaccination effort.
A ceremony marking the mRNA tech transfer announcement was to be held Friday in Brussels at the summit between the European Union and the African Union.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said: "We have been talking a lot about producing mRNA vaccines in Africa. But this goes even beyond. This is mRNA technology designed in Africa, led by Africa and owned by Africa."
- Self-reliance -
Currently, only one percent of the vaccines used in Africa are produced on the continent of some 1.3 billion people.
The WHO set up a global mRNA technology transfer hub in South Africa last year to support manufacturers in low- and middle-income countries to produce their own vaccines.
The global hub's role is to ensure that manufacturers in those nations have the know-how to make mRNA vaccines at scale and according to international standards.
As used in the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines, mRNA technology provokes an immune response by delivering genetic molecules containing the code for key parts of a pathogen into human cells.
Primarily set up to address the Covid-19 pandemic, the global hub has the potential to expand manufacturing capacity for other vaccines and products, such as insulin to treat diabetes, cancer medicines and, potentially, vaccines for diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV.
The scheme's ultimate goal is to spread capacity for national and regional production to all health technologies.
- 'Mutual respect' -
The WHO said it would work with the first six countries chosen to develop a roadmap of training and support so they can start producing vaccines as soon as possible. Training will begin in March.
The South African hub is already producing mRNA vaccines at a laboratory scale and is currently scaling up towards a commercial scale.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said Friday's announcement "means mutual respect, mutual recognition of what we can all bring to the party, investment in our economies, infrastructure investment and, in many ways, giving back to the continent".
French President Emmanuel Macron said supporting African health sovereignty was one of the key goals of starting up local production, "to empower regions and countries to fend for themselves, during crises, and in peacetime".
More than 10.4 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses have been administered around the world, with nearly 62 percent of the global population having received at least one shot.
However, just 11.3 percent of Africans had been fully immunized by the start of February.