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[LAGOS] Africa has the capacity to mass-produce vaccines against COVID-19 if they become available next year but the region will need to be more involved in their search, a meeting has heard.

The University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa announced last month (23 June) a COVID-19 vaccine trial it is conducting in collaboration with the UK-based Oxford University and Oxford Jenner Institute, which first developed the vaccine.

But health experts at a virtual conference on vaccine development held last week (9 July) have called for more African countries to join South Africa to conduct COVID-19 vaccine trials.

“Africa has the scientific expertise to contribute widely to the search for an effective COVID-19 vaccine.”

Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Office for Africa

“I encourage more countries in the region to join these trials so that the contexts and immune response of populations in Africa are factored into studies,” says Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa. “Africa has the scientific expertise to contribute widely to the search for an effective COVID-19 vaccine.”

The vaccine is already undergoing trials in the United Kingdom with 8,000-10,000 volunteers, with Brazil planning to enrol 5,000 participants.

The South African trial, which is targeting 2,000 volunteers aged 18–65 years including people living with HIV, is being funded by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and the Department of Science and Innovation.  

Shabir Madhi, the principal investigator of the South African Ox1Cov-19 Vaccine VIDA-Trial, and a professor of vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand, says that the availability of the vaccine by the first quarter of next year could help but it is a challenge working to get a vaccine in the middle of a pandemic.

“This is a landmark moment for South Africa and Africa at this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said in a press statement on the trial issued by the SAMRC last month (23 June). “As we enter winter in South Africa and pressure increases on public hospitals, now more than ever we need a vaccine to prevent infection by COVID-19.”

According to Madhi, conducting the COVID-19 vaccine trial in an African setting is critical.

“When a vaccine works in one country or setting, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the same will occur in another setting because we’ve got our own unique circumstances in the African context,” he said.  
 


Moeti said that there is already existing vaccine manufacturing capacities in countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia because these facilities are involved in the development of vaccines including yellow fever and Ebola.

This means that what is needed is the expansion of the manufacturing capacity of these facilities for a strong equitable access to vaccines, Moeti said.

“It is clear that as the international community comes together to develop safe and effective vaccines and therapeutics for COVID-19, equity must be a central focus of these efforts,” Moeti explained.  “Too often, African countries end up at the back of the queue for new technologies including vaccines. These life-saving products must be available to everyone, not only those who can afford to pay.” 

Moeti lauded African researchers’ efforts in developing vaccines over the years. 

“Our researchers have helped develop vaccines which provide protection against communicable diseases such as meningitis, Ebola, yellow fever and a number of other common health threats in the region” Moeti added. Pontiano Kaleebu, director of the Uganda Virus Research Institute and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Ugandan Research Unit, said the issues of COVID-19 vaccine access can be achieved through team effort, funding and continuous discussion on how it will reach the elderly, poor people and children living in low- and middle-income countries.

‘Nobody is safe until everybody is safe,” Kaleebu said, adding that Africa’s top scientists need to collaborate to get a safe and an accessible COVID-19 vaccine.  
 
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.