Last week, I realized I was wrong about one of the opportunities Nigeria can exploit to boost foreign exchange earnings. This is the opportunity presented by COVID-19. I wrote as if our country was already on the verge of producing vaccines locally. It turned out, however, that we have a long way to trek before getting to the destination where seven other African countries arrived with supersonic speed.

My mistake was considering only the fact that Nigeria was presented with a rare opportunity to harvest both technical and financial resources to become a vaccine-manufacturing nation. I didn’t interrogate the policy and political will in place to achieve this. Over the years and across many administrations, policymakers hesitate to do the needful. Rather than exploit every opportunity, what our policymakers do verges on pure, inexplicable vacillation.

It was the story of what happened in Kigali, Rwanda, last month that tipped me off. Between December 6 and 7, African Union stakeholders met to review progress being made to manufacture vaccines on the continent. The goal is to promote vaccine manufacturing hubs that ramp up availability and save scarce foreign exchange.

This African stakeholder meeting was encouraging in many respects. Excellent progress reports came from Morocco, Egypt, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Algeria and Ghana. Each of the seven countries has executed solid agreements with overseas pharmaceutical giants to locally manufacture vaccines.

Egypt and South Africa are already manufacturing millions of doses of the vaccines from their Chinese and U.S. agreements, respectively. What about Nigeria, which enjoys pride of place with Egypt and South Africa as the biggest economies of the continent?

Before we answer the question, it is important to point out what Egypt and South Africa gained from pursuing the right vaccine policies. This will advertise what our country is already losing. We use as our guide the rate of Covid-19 vaccination worldwide. From available records, Europe has already achieved full vaccination for half of its population. North America averages almost half, while South America and Asia have vaccinated a third of their population.

Africa, on the other hand, has so far managed to vaccinate only 3 per cent of its population. The low vaccination rate in Africa, however, hides what is happening in Egypt and South Africa. As at today, both countries have fully vaccinated almost a quarter of their population while a third received at least one dose.

It is clear that they will meet up with Asia and South America in no distant time.

The rate of vaccination in Egypt and South Africa is unfortunately driven down by Nigeria and other laggardly African countries. Rather shamefully, Nigeria has so far managed to fully vaccinate 2.2 per cent of its population and given one dose to 5.2 per cent overall. Apart from this slow rate of getting our people to roll up their sleeves, we are struggling with handouts in the form of semi-expired vaccines and making a bonfire of them. There are fears that more than six million doses of the vaccines may expire and again suffer the bonfire treatment.

Is anyone surprised at the turn of events? Oftentimes, our policymakers are not ashamed that we continue to be categorized as a poor country deserving of handouts. We’re happy to wait for emergencies to quickly construct creative pipelines to funnel local funds and to receive international donations. Through our policy vacillations on vaccines, policymakers continue to endanger public health and ignore opportunities to expand the economy. In summary, therefore, Nigeria has continued to ignore the point that vaccine manufacturing is big business.

Last year (2021), this business was valued at $187 billion. Africa currently represents 14 per cent of the global population and is projected to increase to 25 per cent by 2050. Thus, in less than three decades from now, 25 per cent of the world’s population shall need to be vaccinated in Africa. This is not only about coronavirus and its variants, it’s also about regular children’s vaccine protection for smallpox, measles, chicken pox, polio, and the likes. Our population size should have made vaccine production a priority business for our country.

Unfortunately, we appear to have lost the opportunity to become a hub for vaccine manufacturing in West Africa. Russia and China are setting up manufacturing hubs for North Africa in Egypt, Algeria and Morocco.

North America and Europe support three vaccine manufacturing efforts for West Africa (Senegal), Southern Africa (SA), and East Africa (Rwanda). Nigeria, Madam Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said, “remains in consideration.”

This sounded like a diplomatic way to not hurt the feelings of her country of birth. It exposed how our vaccine policy vacillations deliberately endanger the health of our population – and our economy.

Have we lost the opportunity for building a vaccine manufacturing hub for West Africa? The U.S. has provided $3.3 million to Senegal’s Fondation Institut Pasteur de Dakar (IPD) to support the development of a vaccine production hub in the region. The project is supported by the International Finance Corporation, French Development Agency and the European Investment Bank.

What are our policymakers doing about it? The communiqué from the Kigali meeting reports that Nigeria published a vaccine policy and signed an MOU to manufacture vaccines. The name of the company was given as “Biovaccines.” So, on the face of it, it looks like progress is being made in Nigeria. However, both the policy and the MOU are not new. They were merely brought down from where they have been accumulating dust for years in the country’s policy shelf.

Biovaccines Nigeria Limited was incorporated in 2005 as a joint venture between Nigerian and May & Baker.

The agreement was kept away for 16 years, until the Muhammadu Buhari administration revived it in 2017. There were no substantial alterations to the terms of the MOU. M&B retained its 51 per cent majority shareholding, while government held on to its 49 per cent minority equity stake. Is Biovaccines, therefore, the gateway to improving the health and economic wellbeing of Nigerians?

Reports in the public domain, unfortunately, give the impression that Biovaccines has operated more or less like a corruption conduit pipe. Over the years, billions of naira have been funnelled into this pipe by succeeding governments, including the current government. It’s not a joke. Our health minister announced in January 2021 that the administration tossed N10 billion into Biovaccines’ account for “local manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines.”

We face a situation that is both tragic and pitiful. The tragedy of our situation is that vaccine manufacturing is not rocket science. As the examples of Egypt and South Africa show, we do not have to go into full manufacturing to achieve the target of saving our population and earning foreign income. Both countries do what is called “fill and finish” vaccine manufacturing.

At the same time, we have technical expertise and access to funding to achieve vaccine substance manufacturing and technology transfer. But can we couple together and operate a nimble organisation that can face up to the competition, especially in a situation where Senegal and Rwanda have already been positioned as the hub for vaccine substance manufacturing in Africa?

The pity of our situation is that our country has the know-how. And we are not talking about Nigerians that are playing critical roles in COVID-19 manufacturing in the West. Nigeria has been manufacturing vaccines locally since 1940 at a facility known as Vaccine Production Laboratory in Yaba, Lagos! Vaccine production in this facility was suspended in 1991 to “upgrade the facilities.” It turned out to be a ruse to concentrate on the more lucrative handouts and wastage of our foreign earned income.

What is the way out of this sorry situation?

At the end of the day, the only viable option for policymakers that I can see is to patriotically promote Biovaccines Nigeria Ltd as a fill-and-finish manufacturing hub. The goal to make vaccines readily available and boost our export earnings can still be achieved. This is also the model that has made India a successful world manufacturing hub for vaccines. It is a policy worth exploring.

Can we successfully execute this policy under the current shareholding arrangement with Biovaccines?

The keys to success are funding and equity restructuring. The cost of building a vaccine manufacturing plant today is anywhere between $300- to $700 million. We know, however, that, left to any Nigerian government, this cost can shoot up to $2 billion at first and not stop there. It will continue to go through variations and for more funds as administrations come and go. The cumulative costs of the ongoing rehabilitation of Enugu-Onitsha expressway and abandoned Ajaokuta Steel project tell the story better.

There are two options to consider, based on the subsisting MOU between government and May & Baker. The options are to allow the MOU stand as is, or to review the MOU to allow Biovaccines run as a public company with private investors as majority shareholders.

Under the first, it is noteworthy that the World Bank approved $400 million for Nigeria to manage its Covid-19 vaccine import and distribution challenges. Government can re-negotiate with the bank to draw down on this COVID-19 loan to pay for its 49 per cent shareholding in Biovaccines. On its own, M&B can promote Biovaccines as a public company. This will allow it to sell part of its 60 per cent equity through an initial public offer for Biovaccines. Doing this will, however, leave government as the majority stakeholder, a dangerous gamble.

A second and more viable option will be for government and M&B to reduce their respective equities in Biovaccines. The goal is to give at least 60 per cent of the equity to local and foreign individuals and institutional investors. This option will attract the attention of big overseas pharmaceutical behemoths that are already manufacturing vaccines. It is the option that shows the seriousness of the Buhari administration by focusing on strategic benefits of halting its unfortunate serial adoption of our scandalous vaccine policy vacillations.

The multiplier effect of following the second option, to borrow the cliché, cannot be overemphasized. A local vaccine manufacturing hub boosts employment and improves government’s overall tax harvests and conserves foreign reserves and frees funds to be re-channelled to other sectors or to social services. Also, it improves the health of the population who need vaccines, which is everyone, from infants to the old.

Next week: Who is MVP Tinubu’s coach for the 2023 National Tournament?

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