Kenyan Scientists: Why We Need To Make Our Own Vaccines

According to Kenya’s Ministry of Health, only about three in every 100 Kenyans have received a COVID-19 vaccine. The situation is worse around the continent where only about 1.4 per cent of people have been vaccinated. Four eminent Kenyan scientists, interviewed by RoGGKenya separately, now argue that Africa should begin to produce its own vaccines.

By August 1, 2021, only three in every 100 Kenyans had received a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Ministry of Health’s daily status update.

As low as it is, this rate is one of the best in Africa. Kenya was at position 28 out of 54 in Africa in accessing COVID-19 vaccines, according to ranking done by Statista.

List of top 10 African countries that had administered full doses of COVID-19 by August 1, 2021

  1. Seychelles
  2. Mauritious
  3. Morocco
  4. Cabe Verde
  5. Tunisia
  6. Equatorial Guinea
  7. Sao Tome and Principe
  8. Zambia
  9. Botswana
  10. Comoros

The Seychelles are ranked the best with 70 per cent of the population already fully vaccinated. However the island republic in the Indian Ocean is a popular tourist destination and has a population of only 98,000 people.

DR Congo has the lowest vaccination rate with 0 per cent of its population having received two doses, let alone a single shot.

Statista is a German company that collects and aggregates data from multiple public and licensed sources, to generate industry reports, market forecasts and topical statistical data for different sectors.

Several reasons have been given for the low uptake. Experts interviewed by RoggKenya mainly point to the unavailability of vaccines. They warn that it is time Africa invested in vaccine development.

Dr Githinji Gitahi, the Amref Health Africa director, said Africa’s vaccine production capacity is extremely low. Amref Health Africa is an international African organisation founded in Kenya in 1957 to deliver mobile health services and provide mission hospitals with surgical support.

Dr Githinji Gitahi, Director Amref Health Africa. Picture: Courtesy

He said, in Africa, only Senegal exports a World Health Organization (WHO) pre-qualified vaccine – the yellow fever vaccine.

If a vaccine has undergone thorough evaluation of relevant data, testing of samples and WHO inspection of relevant manufacturing sites — and the outcome is positive — it is included in the WHO List of Prequalified Vaccines.

Poor funding

Dr Gitahi, who is a Kenyan, added that most countries have been reluctant to venture into vaccine production because of the huge capital needed. “A manufacturing plant is estimated at between $60 million to $300 million to build and equip.”

This figure does not take into account the costs of researching and developing vaccine candidates from scratch.

Candidates are newly-made vaccines that have not yet been tested and found safe and effective in people.

Currently, 99 per cent of Africa’s vaccine needs are served by Unicef and Gavi through donor funds, Dr Gitahi said.

“Other than financing and manufacturing capacity, Africa must create a common purchase and market arrangement for vaccines from the continent. Otherwise, any fragmented effort will fail,” he said.

Dr Gitahi is also a commissioner with Africa COVID-19 Response, a continental task force established by the Africa Centers for Disease Control (Africa CDC) last year to oversee preparedness and response to the outbreak.

Africa CDC said by August 1, 2021 Africa had received only 89.4 million doses of COVID-19 and administered about 65 million.

The World Health Organization says Africa needs 200 million doses to vaccinate 10 per cent of its population by September this year.

Globally, a total of 3.57 billion vaccine doses have been administered. In total, only 1.4 per cent of Africa has been vaccinated, yet the continent is in its deadliest phase of the epidemic, according to the WHO.

The WHO says Kenya has the continent’s third largest burden of cases after South Africa and Ethiopia. Dr Gitahi blames rich countries for hoarding vaccines and proposes that it is time for Africa to invest in research and development.

Analytics firm Airfinity stated that nearly all types of human vaccines in the world are produced in China,the European Union, the United States and India, which serves 80 per cent of the needs of poor countries.

Airfinity is a London bases science information and analytics company that shares global scientific knowledge.

By February this year, Unicef, which is coordinating vaccine supplies across Africa, said nearly 90 percent of the available COVID-19 doses were administered in just 15 countries that control more than 60 per cent of global GDP .

Africa must commit money

According to Dr Gitahi, long term solution is for Africa to develop the capacity for research and development on the continent.

He added that Africa is in a “crisis on vaccine equity” because there’s no research and development for vaccines. Researchers and investors are needed and then it’s possible to manufacture in Africa.

Dr Gitahi said African governments must commit money to develop research that meets the needs of Africa.

“So that when we invest in it then we own the  intellectual property, and we are therefore also guided by the needs of the continent,” he says.

He illustrates the importance of investment in science through the story of Sir Edwin Chadwick, a 19th century social reformer who devoted his life to sanitary reform in Britain.

British sanitary science

He is famous for having devised the legislation that modernised British sanitary science, which indicated that access to clean water and sanitation was necessary for the health and wealth of the country.

“That is actually what saved the UK from disease. So the health we see in the UK today, in Europe and other developed countries, which is related to the investment in water and sanitation, came from the basic research of Sir Chadwick, who was not even a scientist. He was a social reformer and a lawyer. So research is critical” said Gitahi.

Prof Elizabeth Bukusi , the Chief Research Officer, Center for Microbiology Research, at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri). Picture:  Courtesy.

Prof Elizabeth Bukusi said that Kenya has been making progress in improving the country’s research arena. But more is needed.

The Kenyan scientist is the Chief Research Officer, Center for Microbiology Research, at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri).

“We have brilliant scientists. We have really good minds. We have well-trained individuals who would be available to spearhead and to work in the field of vaccine development for the continent. But we don’t fund them and the facilities,” said Prof Bukusi. She added that the continent must continuously fund institutions such as Kemri.

“And beyond putting in money, they require maintainance. You can’t put in a one-time fund and then say that’s it. Research developes so fast that on a regular basis, people need to upgrade to the latest available research equipment,” she explained.

Kenya is progressing

Prof Bukusu also recommends that significant pots of money need to be put in to ensure there is adequate infrastructure and training on the latest technology that allows scientists to be able to respond to crisis.

To illustrate what can be achieved with proper investment, Prof Bukusi said Covid-19 vaccines were developed so quickly (within one year), because countries deployed their efforts and finances into the process.

“The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been unprecedented, highlighting what can be achieved where there is a will and commensurate investment in resources,” said the Kenyan scientist.

African countries must combine efforts

Dr Catherine Kyobutungi, the Executive Director of the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), advised that several African countries need to join hands instead of each country doing it alone. 

“Vaccine development is a very expensive venture, mostly because there’s a high price failure. So usually when you hear that there’s a vaccine for something like Ebola, they were tested in like 50 countries,” said the Ugandan epidemiologist.

“And all those countries take in hundreds of millions of dollars and then like out of twenty candidates, one of them came through.”

Dr Catherine Kyobutungi, Executive Director of the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) .Picture: Courtesy

Dr Kyobutungi explains that most vaccine candidates usually fail. Sinking with them millions of dollars. But the investment must be sustained despite the failure.

“You might find that you need to combine the budgets of 50 countries for a vaccine development. And so I don’t think any single African country can sufficiently invest in research and infrastructure for developing vaccines,” she said.

She added: “I think many countries can come together and put up a ‘Vaccine Development Institute’ somewhere and sustain it. You don’t start, then Stop.”

She said Africa already has the expertise needed for vaccine development.

There are also experts and the sort of infrastructure that can sustain this kind of work. The issue, she explained, is how to pay for it in the long term, knowing that there may be no returns, even for 10 or 15 years.

“So if Africa would have its own vaccine eventually, it is going to get in the race. But , only if our governments come together and put in money. Alot of money” Dr Kyobutungi concluded.

What journalists should do:

  1. Investigate other factors that impede vaccine uptake in Kenya, such as vaccine hesitancy.
  1. Find out if Kenya has existing infrastructure for vaccine production.
  1. Monitor the vaccine donations into Africa and purchases by African countries through the Africa CDC and other avenues.
  1. Investigate if Kenya is facing difficulties accessing other COVID-19 requirements such as drugs, test kits and PPEs.
  1. Interview Ministry of Health officials to know what Kenya is doing to end the shortage of COVID-19 vaccines.
  1. Look at the global COVID-19 vaccines landscape. How many have been prequalified by the WHO and where are they manufactured.







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