What Are The Challenges For Ghana Producing COVID Vaccines?

The Pharmaceutical Society of Ghana (PSG) says four of its members are awaiting the green light to begin producing COVID-19 vaccines.

Although he did not reveal which of its members are on standby to begin local production, the president of the PSG, Benjamin Kwame Botwe, said the firms are already in possession of the “necessary infrastructure [and] necessary human resource”.

“[The firms] can leverage technology transfer as quickly as possible and this is what has been done in countries like India and Brazil to deal with mass vaccination,” Botwe said in a radio interview in Accra.

But Botwe was also quick to mention that issues of patents may be the biggest hurdles yet to clear but he did not think it was impossible.

“When it comes to conditions to fulfil, sort of have an agreement with the foreign manufacturing companies that do the bulk [of vaccine manufacturing], we need to look at issues of patent and we need to also look at issues of technology transfer,” he added.

Global politics and COVID vaccine patents

Recently, the United States came out in support of a South Africa and India-proposed waiver on intellectual rights on COVID vaccines. The World Trade Organisation (WTO)-recognised rights impeded nations, especially in the developing world, from replicating the vaccines as produced by Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson&Johnson.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates, an investor in global health platforms, as well as a number of the giant pharmaceutical corporations, were averse to the waiver arguing that it was against the principles of the free market.

But the US Trade Representative, in announcing her country’s support for the waiver, said these were “extraordinary times call [that] for extraordinary measures”.

Last week, France President Emmanuel Macron also offered support for the waiver, leading the way for other European Union leaders to do the same.

Intellectual property or rights refers to creations protected by laws on patents, copyrights and trademarks. These prevent copying and allow the originator to be financially rewarded.

A waiver on these rights, therefore, means the creator would not be rewarded much or at all, as their invention is replicated or used. Waivers in the pharmaceutical industry are best seen in how generic drugs such as paracetamol (acetaminophen) and (acetylsalicylic acid) are traded.

The COVID vaccine waiver was first proposed in December of 2020, a few months after Moderna and Pfizer announced breakthroughs in their vaccine researches. There were fears that richer countries would move to hoard doses as quickly as they were manufactured.

Currently, a little over 2.5 billion doses of vaccines have been administered across the world but only 0.8% of this has been in lower-middle-income countries such as Ghana.

Russia and China were the two major countries that supported the waiver until the United States added its support. It is seen that after the EU countries vote to support a waiver on intellectual patents to owning COVID vaccines, Ghanaian pharmaceutical companies would have a reason to proceed.

Ghana’s quest to produce vaccines

At the onset of Ghana’s own portion of the coronavirus global pandemic, President Nana Akufo-Addo promised that his government would look for ways to partner pharmaceutical firms into looking at how to produce vaccines.

The Minister of Health, Kwaku Agyeman-Manu recently revealed deliberations with private pharmaceutical firms to see how they could contribute to the ongoing vaccination programme.

But it is also not very clear if the capacities of Ghana’s pharmaceutical manufacturers measure up to those in the five countries that have previously been cited as the most capable in Africa.

Only five African countries nations – Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia – are thought to possess the capacities to produce vaccines. These facilities produce fewer than 100 million doses a year, most of which is supplied to domestic markets with very little in the way of exports.

No African pharmaceutical companies produce the base ingredients such as antigens necessary for making vaccines. This puts any Ghanaian vaccine-making ambition at a serious disadvantage and at the mercy of global pharmaceutical giants.

Perhaps, it why the Health Minister has described the Ghanaian capacity as “filling and packing”.

“Their strategy is to do what they call filling and packing first then the science community will also take some time to start developing [a] vaccine in our country. So that area is also seriously being considered and we are actually on course in that direction,” he explained.

Still, a timeline has not been offered as to when these plans would manifest.

Ghana’s vaccine rollout has been chiefly due to the World Health Organisation’s COVAX programme that secures vaccines in a competitive market on behalf of developing nations.

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