The pandemic seems almost already far away in Kenya. Most of the latest health restrictions have been lifted. In the streets of Nairobi, the capital, residents now walk around without masks. Since the beginning of February, the number of new daily positive cases for Covid-19 has not exceeded 20 people. Yet barely 15% of the adult population is fully vaccinated.
It is in this context that Moderna announced, on March 7, the signing of a preliminary agreement with the Kenyan government to install in the country its first messenger RNA vaccine factory in Africa. The American firm intends to invest 500 million dollars (460 million euros) for a production of 500 million doses per year intended for the African continent. The factory should manufacture vaccines against Covid-19, but also against HIV or the Nipah virus.
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Moderna’s investment is important for Kenya, not only financially, but also because it promises job creation and knowledge transfer. Something to delight Nairobi, which already showed its desire to develop the manufacture of vaccines on its soil. At the end of 2021, President Kenyatta notably launched the Kenya Biovax Institute, a parastatal company responsible for launching the production of vaccines locally, starting with filling.
Important tax advantages
“The question is not whether there will be another pandemic or not, but when it will. So, for the next one, we don’t want to have a situation where everyone has access to vaccines except us. “explains Mutahi Kagwe, the Kenyan Minister of Health. Because currently, only 1% of the vaccines used in Africa are produced on the continent.
Nairobi claims to have put everything in place to ensure the smooth running of the project. A team has been set up bringing together the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Public Treasury. Its objective will be to “facilitate and accelerate” the start of the project, “we are ready to give them everything they need insists Mutahi Kagwe.
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If the prior agreement with Moderna has been signed, there are still several steps to go through. It is necessary to choose the place of this new factory and to determine the conditions of the future investment. Moderna could establish itself in one of the free export zones (EPZ) which benefit from significant tax advantages. A team from the company is expected soon in the country to discuss it. ” We’re going to show them all these areas “says the Minister of Health.
A politically stable country
While much remains to be done, Moderna can rely on bases that already exist in Kenya. Through Kemri – the Kenyan Medical Research Institute – the country has participated in the trial phases of the AstraZeneca vaccine and is taking part in a pilot program for the inoculation of the one against malaria.
“Kenya has very good scientists, well trained, especially in virology. It also has well-established health research and development centers,” explains Catherine Kyobutungi, director of the African Population and Health Research Center, a health research center based in Nairobi. “We are already planning to increase our training in these areas,” also specifies Minister Mutahi Kagwe.
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In addition to its skilled workforce, Kenya has other assets for the American firm. It is politically stable and has good infrastructure to facilitate exporting, including Nairobi airport and Mombasa port. “There are also good living conditions for expatriates”, adds Catherine Kyobutungi, “good schools, good hospitals…”, enough to attract foreign labour.
The start date of the project is not yet fixed. But Moderna plans to start filling doses of vaccines as soon as 2023. Critics are emerging, however, with some fearing that the American laboratory’s project will compete with the World Health Organization’s initiative. Kenya had indeed been chosen by the UN agency, along with five other countries, to host mRNA vaccine production units. But the advantage of Moderna’s project is that it comes with an investment.
► Towards an agreement on patents
A compromise for a waiver of intellectual property rights on anti-Covid vaccines seems to be on the right track, according to the World Trade Organization (WTO). An agreement was reached in mid-March by the European Union, the United States, India and South Africa. It should allow developing countries to obtain a “compulsory license”, which allows a State to use a patent without the authorization of its holder, subject to compensation. This compromise found between the four parties involved in the negotiations will still have to be approved by the other members of the WTO, where decisions are taken by consensus.