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‘South Africa can play an important role in local vaccine production’

Opportunities and challenges: the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa. Three questions for Martin Weiß, GIZ Country Director in South Africa/Lesotho.

The international COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) initiative for equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines is playing a key role in the fight against the pandemic. COVAX is also supported by the German Government and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH. The initial delivery of vaccines to Africa began in February 2021. By the end of August, 143 million doses had been delivered. In total, 39 million people have been fully vaccinated across the African continent, which is equivalent to around three per cent of the total population of the continent. If the September deliveries arrive according to plan, sufficient vaccine will be available for around 10 per cent of the population, which was one of the targets the initiative set itself.

COVAX is delivering vaccines to Africa, but the amount that has been provided so far only covers a fraction of the population. There are therefore plans for South Africa to begin producing vaccines itself. What role can German development cooperation and GIZ play here?

The conditions for vaccine production in South Africa are favourable, and the country could therefore play an important role in manufacturing vaccines for the region and the entire African continent. We have many years of experience working with the health care sector in South Africa, mainly in supporting the battle against HIV/AIDS. The country has in fact been producing vaccines for a long time. Our activities in this area have for example included finding German experts to support the South African vaccine manufacturer Biovac. Together with KfW, we are now examining ways in which German development cooperation can support South Africa over the next few years as it seeks to expand its vaccine production capacity. This will require specialised knowledge, local expertise and cooperation with a range of partners – from the private sector to universities to regulatory agencies. GIZ can make an important contribution here with our experience, networks and various instruments.

A number of African countries have been experiencing difficulties in actually utilising the low number of vaccine doses they have received, due in part to major reservations among their populations. What’s the situation in South Africa, and how are you addressing it?

Reservations and concerns about vaccines are a global phenomenon. In South Africa, as in Germany, we’re having to deal with rumours, misinformation and uncertainty among the public. Nevertheless, surveys have in fact shown that vaccine scepticism in South Africa is higher than the global average. People are afraid of possible side effects and have doubts about the effectiveness of vaccines in general. Unfortunately, this widespread scepticism is being fuelled in part by reports published on social media platforms in particular, which play a key role in this country. Clear and transparent communication of the scientific and political reasoning behind the vaccination strategy is therefore very important here. At the same time, South Africa is a very diverse country, which means you need to use different communication strategies to reach different population groups. It’s also important to offer simple and effective assistance to people who want to get vaccinated. We are supporting the South African Government with all of these measures on behalf of the German Development Ministry (BMZ).

During the African Union vaccination conference in April, the African nations set themselves the goal of developing their own vaccine production capacity so that the continent can cover 60 per cent of its vaccine needs itself by 2040. What implications does vaccine production in South Africa have for the country itself and for the continent as a whole – not only during the COVID-19 pandemic?

At the moment, only 1 per cent of the vaccines used in Africa are produced on the continent, although Africa accounts for 25 per cent of the global market for vaccines. The current pandemic has really demonstrated just how dependent African countries are on international supply chains.

The African Union’s goal of manufacturing 60 per cent of the vaccines that Africa needs here on the continent therefore makes strategic sense, but it’s also a very ambitious objective. Vaccine production is challenging – effective technology transfer and a skilled workforce are key requirements here. And the financial risks that investors will face shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s therefore important to establish international partnerships that bring together policy-makers, civil society, the private sector and research institutions. Successful regional and pan-African coordination is also essential to ensure that there is sufficient demand and that manufacturers remain competitive on the global market. This means that international support will be needed in order to get African vaccine production up and running.

In any case, if Africa can increase its vaccine production capacity, it will be able to supply itself with vaccines faster and more effectively when the next pandemic hits. And of course this applies not just to COVID-19 vaccines, but to other vaccination programmes too, some of which are already firmly established in South Africa. This commitment to local vaccine production means greater planning security – and it will also strengthen the economy.

Interviewer: Martin Weiß, GIZ Country Director in South Africa/Lesotho

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