Analysis: African Biotech Holds the Key to Transforming Not Just the Health of African People, but Our Economies as Well
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound and unprecedented impact on the lives of people all over the world. Most economies are still recovering from the devastating effects of the pandemic and the long-term health effects of those previously infected are yet to be fully understood. One of the most disappointing legacies of the pandemic has been the significant disparity in vaccine access between high-income and low- and middle-income countries (LMIC). Over a year since the first COVID-19 vaccines were licensed only 27.3% of people in Africa have received at least one dose of a licensed vaccine, compared with 80% and 75% of the populations in the United States and the European Union respectively. This inequity has understandably resulted in calls for increased investment in vaccine manufacturing capacity across Africa, however lack of vaccine manufacturing capacity is a symptom of a much larger issue. African biotech has the potential to spearhead this transition, creating countless new job opportunities for Africa’s young and talented population and catalysing significant and sustainable economic growth across the continent. The pandemic has highlighted the fragility of an African scientific ecosystem that is underfunded and currently unsustainable.
In Khartoum in 2006 the Executive Council of the African Union endorsed the call for African countries to raise their national science budgets to 1% of gross domestic product (GDP). Often referred to as the Khartoum Decision, this declaration was further emphasised in 2007 in Addis Ababa as African governments were strongly urged to put in place measures to ensure that at least 1% of GDP was allocated to research and development (R&D) by 2010. These measures, it was hoped, would spur the expansion of scientific capacity and lead to a significant increase in tangible scientific and technological outputs across Africa. Beyond simply promoting scientific and technological innovation on the continent, this strategy was also viewed as a key component of the strategy to promote economic and social development on the continent.
There is clear evidence that increasing R&D expenditure directly translates into an increase in GDP; with GDP increasing by as much as 2.2% for every 1% increase in gross domestic expenditure on research and development (GERD). Unfortunately, more than a decade since the Khartoum Decision, Africa’s GERD as a proportion of GDP is estimated as 0.5% compared to a global average of 2.2%. The weakness of the African R&D ecosystem is further exacerbated by a relentless flow of talent out of the continent. Within the healthcare sector alone, it is estimated that Africa loses over $2 billion a year due to the brain drain. It is therefore not surprising that despite accounting for 15% of the world’s population and over 25% of global disease burden, Africa contributes less than 2% of global scientific output.
Photo courtesy of Army Medicine.
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