By Sharon Atieno

Kenya is set to be the first country in Africa to host a messenger RNA vaccine facility.

This is as a result of a memorandum of understanding between the Kenyan government and Moderna, with the support of the United Nations Government.

The biotech company will invest about US$ 500M in the establishment of the facility which is expected to produce up to 500 million doses of vaccines yearly.

According to the company, the facility will focus on drug substance manufacturing for the African continent, which could be expanded to include fill/finish and packaging capabilities.

Besides, it can start filling doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine in Africa as early as 2023, subject to demand.

“Battling the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years has provided a reminder of the work that must be done to 1 ensure global health equity. Moderna is committed to being a part of the solution and today, we announce another step in this journey – an investment in the Republic of Kenya to build a drug substance mRNA manufacturing facility capable of supplying up to 500 million doses for the African continent each year,” said Stéphane Bancel, Chief Executive Officer of Moderna in a statement.

Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta welcoming the partnership said the facility would help Kenya and other African states to respond to future health crises and stave off the next pandemic.

“This partnership is a testament to the capabilities of our community and our commitment to technological innovation. Moderna’s investment in Kenya will help advance equitable global vaccine access and is emblematic of the structural developments that will enable Africa to become an engine of sustainable global growth,” he said.

Initially the COVID-19 vaccine roll out had been marred with cases of vaccine nationalism, whereby developed countries would amass vaccine doses for their populations at the expense of developing countries.

So dire was the situation, that African researchers started calling for local vaccine manufacturing in the continent to ensure the issue of unfair distribution is dealt with.

In a previous comment, Prof. Walter Jaoko, Director of the Kenya Aids Vaccine Initiative (KAVI) Institute of Clinical Research, University of Nairobi, said, “ Africa should leverage on the strengths of regional blocks, such as the East African Community (EAC), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and Southern African Development Community (SADC), among others, to develop regional centres of excellence for vaccine manufacturing.”

Similar sentiments were shared by Prof. Omu Anzala, lecturer virology and immunology and lead research scientist at KAVI at the Institute of Clinical Research, University of Nairobi, who called for more African countries apart from Senegal, Egypt and Morocco to venture into vaccine development.

“ We are not advocating that each and every country should get into manufacturing, but we can get into regional blocs and then those regional blocs can specialize,” he said.

“Having regional blocs to develop structure and systems to be able to manufacture these vaccines is the way to go,” noted Dr. Michael Owusu, Clinical Microbiologist and lecturer Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana.

Campaigns to increase vaccine equity led by the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations and other partners have led to improved COVID-19 vaccines’ access for African and other developing countries.

But the initial set back in vaccine access still has a ripple effect on the vaccination rates in the African continent with only about 15% of Africans being fully vaccinated to date. In contrast, developed countries like Israel are administering a fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine after a successful vaccination drive of their target populations.

Other efforts to improve access to vaccines for African and other developing countries include the establishment of the COVID mRNA technology transfer hub in South Africa. This is being done with the help of the WHO and its COVAX partners  working with a South African consortium comprising Biovac, Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, a network of universities and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

According to WHO, though supply has now increased, access to any new formulations of COVID-19 vaccines – tailored specifically to new variants – will likely also be inequitable because manufacturing capacity remains limited to only a small handful of companies and countries.