The start of a new year is often a time to reflect and reassess. As the pandemic stretches into its third year, apprehension over the health crisis and the associated economic uncertainties is proving hard to shake.
So, for anyone hoping to restore their sense of optimism, I have a simple recommendation:
In early December, I travelled to the region—my first time since the COVID‑19 outbreak—and had the opportunity to visit Senegal and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I witnessed first-hand the creativity, energy, and entrepreneurial spirit that the region is bringing to bear in overcoming this crisis.
My visit to the Institut Pasteur in Dakar, in particular, was one of these inspirations. The Institut is already a world-class leader in the fight against infectious diseases, having attracted and trained international and regional specialists. Now, the staff there are leading the way to address Africa’s immediate COVID‑19 challenge. They are also building the region’s capacity to fight future pandemics and meet Africa’s more routine immunization needs.
It is critical the region has the tools and the necessary funds to build capacity to produce and manufacture vaccines. This need is especially acute given that the overall COVID vaccination rate on the continent is still below 10 percent. As Africa faces a fourth wave of infections, the emergence of the Omicron variant is yet another reminder that the region’s ability to equip itself to fight this pandemic and address future healthcare needs has global implications.
Meeting today’s needs
Notwithstanding the impressive efforts of the Institut Pasteur, for now, Africa remains reliant on COVID‑19 vaccine imports and donations. The most immediate priority must be to guarantee predictability in vaccine deliveries—including through COVAX and the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT). Funding will also be needed to ensure that Africa’s health systems can vaccinate the local population swiftly as new supplies arrive, including through outreach efforts to reiterate the importance of vaccines and reduce misinformation and vaccine hesitancy. Beyond vaccines, the region requires access to tests, treatments, and protective equipment.
Last year, IMF staff proposed a plan to end the pandemic, by vaccinating 40 percent of the population of all countries by end-2021 and 70 percent** by mid-2022. Progress has been impressive, but the world must do better. The distribution of vaccines and other tools continues at two alarmingly different speeds. In Africa, for instance, only seven countries reached the 40 percent target in 2021 and, for many, the 70 percent target seems increasingly ambitious.
All of this will require further cooperation and support from the international community. Closing the $23 billion financing gap of the Access to COVID‑19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, for example, would be a welcome first step, as a sizable portion of this effort is directed toward Africa. And progress toward vaccine equity is not just a matter of addressing vaccine supply; countries also need more support to strengthen ‘last mile’ delivery.
To be clear, this international support is not charity. This is a global public good! As we all know by now, no one is safe until everyone is safe.
Building resilience for the future
But we must not let efforts to meet urgent needs come at the expense of future needs. Boosting resilience for the future is also a priority—including the region’s capacity to provide for itself, against COVID‑19 or any other disease that may arise in the future. Without predictable and reliable vaccine supplies, for example, health authorities are often forced to react at short notice to accept doses, often with limited shelf lives, greatly complicating delivery logistics for already-stretched health systems. In short, true resilience in Africa cannot depend on the repeated generosity of the international community. It requires scaled-up local manufacturing capacity and strengthened regional supply chains.
Africa vaccinating Africa is necessary—and it is achievable.
Vaccine manufacturing is a sophisticated enterprise that requires specialized equipment, inputs, storage facilities, and skilled labor. But anyone who tells you that this cannot be done in Africa has not been paying attention.
The work of the Institut Pasteur in Dakar offers a glimpse of the region’s ambitions in the global effort against disease. With financial assistance from the United States, European Union, and international foundations—along with the savvy use of some of Senegal’s recent SDR allocation—construction of a new manufacturing facility is already underway. When complete, this will be one of the first start-to-finish factories on the continent, and a potentially critical component in Africa’s COVID‑19 and other vaccine supply.
And the Institut is far from the only center of excellence in the region—it is part of an impressive Africa-wide health and science community that is making an invaluable contribution to global health—including, most recently, discovering and sequencing the Omicron variant. Currently, there are 12 production facilities, either in operation or in the pipeline, across six African countries—Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal, and South Africa—that are expected to produce a wide range of COVID‑19 vaccines.
Global public good
As we contemplate the new year, it is increasingly clear that a robust and reliable vaccine capacity in Africa is a global public good that deserves global support. For the current crisis or for future pandemics, we all have a stake in Africa’s success.
I have no doubt that Africa is up to the task. But the international community can—and must—help by stepping up cross-border collaboration in science; incentivizing technological transfers to better diversify the production of vaccines and other life-saving medical tools.
Louis Pasteur once said, “Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which will illuminate the world.” The wisdom of Pasteur’s vision is more striking than ever. We must now all do our part to ensure that the fruits of our knowledge are shared swiftly and fairly, for the sake of all humanity.
** Originally 60 percent by mid‑2022, but raised to 70 percent with the increased virulence of new variants.