Initiative announced in Paris will incentivise and offset start-up costs for vaccine manufacturing in the continent.

French President Emmanuel Macron has joined several African leaders to kick off a planned $1.1bn project to accelerate vaccine production in Africa, after the COVID-19 pandemic exposed inequalities in access to inoculation.

The launch of the African Vaccine Manufacturing Accelerator at an event in Paris on Thursday will provide financial incentives to boost local vaccine manufacturing in the continent.

African Union Commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat welcomed the initiative, saying that it “could become a catalyst for promoting the pharmaceutical industry in Africa and fostering collaboration between member states”.

Africa imports “99 percent of its vaccines at an exorbitant cost”, he said.

Macron said the programme “will be an essential step towards a genuine African vaccine market”.

The European Union said the bloc and its member states will contribute $800m to the vaccine manufacturing scheme. It said the programme will offset start-up costs and ensure demand for vaccines made in Africa.

“Importantly, it will also support the sustainable growth of Africa’s manufacturing base and contribute to the African Union’s ambition to produce most vaccines required by African countries on the continent,” the EU said in a statement.

Many African leaders and advocacy groups say Africa was unfairly locked out of access to COVID-19 treatment tools, vaccines and testing equipment — which many richer countries bought up in huge quantities — after the pandemic was declared in 2020.

Helen Rees, Executive Director of Wits RHI at the University of the Witwatersrand, said the COVID pandemic revealed the lack of equity in access to vaccines.

“By the time we got really good access to vaccines here [in Africa], many countries had already experienced COVID outbreaks, many people had immunity from natural infection. The impact of the vaccines was much less here simply because we got them too late,” she told Al Jazeera.

“COVID started a dialogue about access to vaccines, medicines and diagnostics – everything you need to control outbreaks and to stop vaccine-preventable diseases. And that dialogue is centred around equity and how we increase access in the African region.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) and advocacy groups want to help Africa better prepare for the next pandemic, which many health experts say is inevitable.

“There is no doubt that the delays in reaching low-income countries and communities with vaccines cost lives,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Thursday. “We cannot allow the same thing to happen next time. And there will be a next time.”

When the coronavirus pandemic began, South Africa was the only country in the continent with any ability to produce vaccines, officials say, and Africa produced a tiny fraction of all vaccines worldwide.

WHO failed in its efforts to help countries agree to a “pandemic treaty” – to improve preparedness and response to pandemics – before its annual meeting last month.

The project was shelved largely due to disagreements over sharing information about pathogens that cause epidemics and the high-tech tools used to fight them.

Negotiators will resume work on the treaty in hopes of clinching a deal by the next WHO annual meeting in 2025.

Thursday’s event in Paris, which was attended by leaders Botswana, Rwanda, Senegal, Ghana, also aimed to give a funding boost to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, a public-private partnership that helps get needed vaccines to developing countries around the world.

Gavi is seeking $9bn to bolster its vaccination programmes in poorer countries from 2026 to 2030.

Gavi Chief Executive Sania Nishtar said the group aims to move more quickly and offer more vaccines, including expanding a malaria vaccine roll-out, which began in Cameroon this year.

The global vaccine alliance wants to reach “the highest number of children, covering them against the widest number of diseases … in the shortest possible time”, Nishtar told the Reuters news agency on Wednesday ahead of the meeting.

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