Pandemic Africa Gambia Vaccinations
A health worker administers a dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at the Bundung Maternal and Child Health Hospital in Serrekunda, outskirts of Banjul, Gambia, Thursday, September 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

If you are trying to avoid a serious COVID-19 infection, you don’t want to be living in a developing country. Low-income parts of the world are scrambling to affordably purchase and find donations of the life-saving mRNA vaccines of the kind manufactured by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. That leaves most of the African continent far behind much of the international community in its vaccination rate.

Out of the more than 50 countries in Africa, only five are expected to meet the World Health Organization’s COVID vaccine target of fully inoculating 40 percent of its people by the end of the year, the group said last month. In contrast, G20 countries have received 15 times the number of doses per capita than countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (minus South Africa, which is part of the G20). As I wrote last month, the U.S. is hoarding hundreds of millions of vaccine doses, many past their point of expiration.

One obvious solution to the problem is for African countries to start manufacturing their own mRNA vaccines. But it’s not that simple—even though their predicament is, simply, a consequence of corporate greed of the oldest kind.

Moderna, in particular, is “behaving as if they have absolutely no responsibility beyond maximizing the return on investment,” Dr. Tom Frieden, a former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told The New York Times last month. The company, which has never earned a profit until now, has made $4 billion from its COVID vaccine alone in just the first half of 2021.

For African and other developing countries to make their own mRNA vaccine, scientists have to know how to do so, and that would require the release of patents—which neither Moderna nor Pfizer, both U.S. companies, have yet agreed to do. More important, though, neither company has allowed the release of the complex mRNA technology needed to produce doses. Instead, the companies have excused their stinginess by asserting that it’s way too complicated a process to share—despite Moderna saying a year ago that it would not hoard its patents and know-how.

Moderna’s president, Stephen Hoge, told The Wall Street Journal in October 2020 that it was “quite studiously” not going to be hunting down emulators and taking them to court. “We’re not interested in using that IP to decrease the number of vaccines available in a pandemic,” he said, referring to the licensing of the company’s intellectual property. In a statement at the time, the company said the only sensible thing it could: “We feel a special obligation under the current circumstances to use our resources to bring this pandemic to an end as quickly as possible.”

Apparently, that feeling of obligation dissipated along the way, despite the fact that Moderna created its vaccine with the help of money from COVAX, the multinational effort created to distribute vaccines evenhandedly around the world, and with billions of dollars from the American tax-paying public.

Since then, all kinds of excuses have sputtered from Moderna and Pfizer about why they’re not sharing their knowledge. They say they “don’t have the bandwidth” to share the technology, Kate Elder, the senior vaccines policy adviser at Doctors Without Borders, told me recently.

To get around the lack of sharing, the WHO announced last month that it would attempt to create an mRNA shot at a vaccine technology hub in South Africa—attempt being the operative word. The CDC explains that messenger RNA vaccines “teach our cells how to make a protein that will trigger an immune response inside our bodies.” Without Big Pharma’s cooperation, however, a production time line for an African vaccine is unknown. The hub plans to teach African scientists how to make the vaccines, which is the best opportunity to vaccinate more of the continent, experts say. “You want to fill local, more indigenous manufacturing capacity,” Elder said. “The African Union wants to be self-sufficient.

A couple of weeks ago, Moderna announced that it will build its own factory to manufacture its COVID vaccine in Africa. While that will eventually help fill a need, it does hardly anything for the continent in the immediate future.

Last week, another major pharmaceutical company announced a development that undermines the WHO’s efforts in the South African hub. BioNTech, a German company, signed a memorandum of understanding with Rwanda, Senegal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Senegal-based manufacturer Institut Pasteur de Dakar, saying that it plans to construct an mRNA vaccine manufacturing factory in mid-2022. The company offered no details about its proposal, leaving critical questions open, said Doctors Without Borders.

There are many unknowns, such as “how intellectual property is going to be managed, which kind of mRNA vaccines are going to be produced in the new facility, or where the produced vaccines could be sold beyond the African continent,” Candice Sehoma, South Africa advocacy officer for the group’s Access Campaign, said in a statement. “Furthermore, the communiqué appears to indicate that the initial staffing would come from BioNTech’s headquarters, which is unacceptable considering an African expert workforce already exists as part of the hub and should be involved in the process from the onset.”

Like Moderna, BioNTech received a huge amount of public funding (from the European Union) to develop its mRNA vaccine, but it has not made its MOU public thus far.

Challenged by the enormous cost of setting up its own production facilities and hampered by a lack of information, Sub-Saharan Africa is, for the moment, unable to move forward quickly toward self-sustenance, leaving an indefinite number of people to possibly die needlessly.

The exact numbers of COVID cases and deaths have been difficult to measure thus far throughout the continent. Years of tightfisted colonialism have left many countries with subpar health systems—and, often, a lack of trust in authorities. Because of these factors and others, the WHO estimates that only one out of seven cases are detected in Africa.

In this precarious moment for humanity, the money grubbing by the pharmaceutical corporations is astounding, even if it is not the least bit surprising.

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Lauren Wolfe

Lauren Wolfe is an award-winning journalist who publishes Chills and teaches at NYU’s graduate school of journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Wolfe321.