The advent of Covid-19 has been a boon for healthcare and vaccine development globally, with South Africa already reaping the benefits, in the form of increased public health awareness and investment.
Notwithstanding the incredible tragedy the pandemic has caused to families around the world, scientists can’t deny its long term benefits to the future of healthcare, particularly vaccines, and the treatment of viral infections.
From boosting funding and research in mRNA technology and other vaccine development, to investments into developing economies, Covid-19 may come to be seen as a blessing in disguise in the long term.
According to the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH), Covid-19 has seen significant and unprecedented investments into vaccine research, and has also had a positive impact in influencing the efficiency of regulatory authorities and approval processes.
Country representative for PATH in South Africa, Sibusiso Hlatjwako, says Covid-19 has increased awareness on public health, and in particular global pandemics. It led to more public and global discussions on public health and issues of health security, and has highlighted issues around equitable access to health and health products.
“Covid-19 vaccine research and the regulatory processes which guide the approval and introduction of vaccines and other medical products has led to more transparent discussions between regulatory authorities and other critical stakeholders such as civil society, patient’s user groups, media and policy makers.”
Pharmaceutical giants investing in South Africa
Last year, international pharmaceutical giant Johnson and Johnson granted South African pharmaceutical manufacturer Aspen Pharmacare permission to manufacture its Covid vaccine locally, and millions of doses have already been bottled and shipped.
And just last week, another major investment on the continent was announced, with maker of another Covid vaccine, Moderna saying they also have plans to open a manufacturing plant in Africa.
Moderna has plans to invest up to $500 million to build an African factory in Africa to make up to 500 million doses of mRNA vaccines annually, in response to a push by the World Health organisation for countries to set up African operation, in order to secure supplies of vaccines.
Reuters reported that Moderna’s proposed site is expected to include drug substance manufacturing as well as bottling and packaging capabilities
“We expect to manufacture our COVID-19 vaccine as well as additional products within our mRNA vaccine portfolio at this facility,” CEO Stephane Bancel said in a statement.
The location of the plant has not been confirmed, but potential host countries include South Africa, Rwanda and Senegal.
A notable testament to this is the historic milestone in the development of the first malaria vaccine, which has been specifically developed for African children, and which could soon be more widely available.
Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended the broader use of the world’s first malaria vaccine, RTS,S/AS01E (RTS,S).
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This means the rollout of the vaccine, which is currently being piloted in areas of Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi, can soon be available to more children in these countries, and in other malaria-endemic nations as well.
According to former Ethiopian Minister of Health and CEO of Big Win Philanthropy, Dr Kesete Admasu, new evidence from Mali and Burkina Faso shows that RTS,S could be an even more valuable tool than originally expected. This is because new evidence that shows that vaccine could help reduce malaria episodes by 70% when used with seasonal malaria chemoprevention.
“In the midst of the tragedy and turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s gratifying to see work continuing in Africa to find new ways of fighting malaria, a very old disease that has been a formidable foe for thousands of years and still kills 400,000 people every year, most of them African children under five years old,” says Admasu.
Scientists from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé in Burkina Faso and the University of Bamako in Mali published results from a phase 3 trial that involved the world’s first and only malaria vaccine.
The Ministries of Health in the three countries have administered more than 2.3 million doses of RTS,S since 2019 through routine immunisation services as part of the pilot program, which is supported by WHO in collaboration with PATH, the vaccine developer GSK, and other partners.
Vaccine hesitancy is not new
South Africa’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout, which aims to reach 40 million people by the end of the year, has been hampered by vaccine hesitancy.
The National Department of Health (NDoH) estimates that if it reaches this goal, 20,000 lives can be saved.
“Vaccine hesitancy is not a new phenomenon. It has existed even before the COVID19 pandemic. What the discussions on the pandemic has brought is more attention to vaccines and people have leveraged these discussions to fuel conspiracy theories which have fed into more hesitancy on vaccines,” says Hlatjwako.
” The health sector and all sectors have the responsibility to continue to provide more education on vaccine and its benefits and how vaccines are the most efficient public health way for nations and the world to get out of the COVID19 pandemic.”