Africa needs to step up on preparedness and prevention of pandemics

Earlier this year, a new international coalition CEPI-the coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations- was launched in Davos with aim of accelerating the development of vaccines for emerging infectious diseases in order to prevent future pandemics. pandemics of infectious diseases like Ebola. an Ebola vaccine was created in 2003 and tested in 2005 and sat in a freezer until 2016 when it was proven to be 100 percent effective at preventing infections. the vaccine stalled because it is extremely expensive to develop vaccines, it usually cost up to $1 billion to test vaccines in large clinical trials and the whole manufacturing process. Pharmaceutical companies do not invest in such when it comes to diseases like Ebola, which are and tend to hit poor countries, there is simply no significant return on investment.

The recent outbreak in West Africa, soaring prices of medicines and the lack of new antibiotics to address the spread of microbial disease are a wake-up call to make systematic changes in research & development, regulations, and supply of vaccines and medicines.

CEPI will focus on three diseases within the next five years: Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Lassa fever, and Nipah. With up to $460 million from the Wellcome Trust, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the governments of Germany, Japan, and Norway, it will fund the development of vaccines against the likely pandemics of the future, testing them as far as possible, and stockpiling millions of doses. When outbreaks happen, the vaccines will be immediately ready for field-testing and mass-manufacture. GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, similar to CEPI, committed to further develop, license and stockpile an Ebola vaccine previously owned by Merck & Co Inc.

It is unfortunate that epidemics such as Ebola, Zika, HIV, tuberculosis, Malaria, among many others are still claiming millions, an unacceptably high number, of lives in poor countries in the Global South, particularly in Africa, and even more appalling that Pharmaceutical industries choose to make medicines for profit and not for people.

With these pressing challenges, It can be disgruntling how African countries are not actively contributing to these efforts to design new tools and build systems to fight these diseases and ensure vaccines and drugs are available to the people who need them as quickly as possible. this lack of involvement is even aggravated by many roadblocks that these countries establish in terms of regulatory systems that they, at least, can control if the cost of medicines and delivery systems are out of reach. Some drugs would remain inaccessible in most of our countries while available in others, a drug may be approved in rich countries within 6 months and takes up to 7 years to have it approved in one of our countries.  

With my engagement with WHO on health policy through the International Pharmaceutical Students’ Federation in the past 3 years, I realized that African countries, choose to remain at the receiving end. As the WHO is undergoing a structural change and rethinking bio-medical research & development, I would expect African countries to engage more than all other countries to redress the inequity perpetuated by current systems. There is a desperate need to move towards public funding and launching of initiatives by the Global South, especially Africa.

One of the laudable Initiatives, the African Network for Drugs and Diagnostics Innovation (ANDi) was launched in Abuja in 2008. The goal of ANDi is to promote and sustain African-led product R&D innovation through the discovery, development, and delivery of affordable new tools, including those based on traditional medicines. ANDI also support capacity and infrastructural development and to create a sustainable platform for R&D innovation in Africa to address Africa’s own health needs.

However ANDi has been facing funding challenges and if no funding comes shortly, WHO believes it will have to close doors, and it’s only up to African countries to help ANDi as it is promoting innovation in Africa for Africa. This case also makes me skeptic about how long the recently launched, already understaffed and underfunded, African Center for Disease Control, will be sustained if Africa remains focused on political matters and much less on the health sector.

Of all things to focus on on this continent, preventing and curing diseases should be among core priorities. even though national capacities are still inadequate, the best defense is a multi-stakeholder global architecture for a pandemic response that integrates public and private partners into a coordinated national, regional and global response. Hence the obligation to adequately fund and strengthen initiatives such as the African Network for Drugs and Diagnostics Innovation, and the African Center for Disease Control. There is as well a need for significant engagement in the reform of WHO and it’s activities, and an extensive participation in collaboration projects such as GAVI and CEPI.

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