Geneva — Mexico and South Africa want to start producing their own vaccines to boost their immunisation programmes, the 67th World Health Assembly (WHA) in Switzerland has heard.
The countries need the WHO and other international agencies to help expand their local manufacturing capacity, a move they hope will lower the cost of vaccines and make their supply more reliable.
Buying vaccines from international pharmaceutical companies does not guarantee a "security of supply", delegations from Mexico and South Africa told the session of Global Vaccine Action last week (19-24 May).
"We want the WHO and other international agencies to empower us to produce our vaccines," South Africa's minister of health, Aaron Motsoaledi, told the gathering.
He said efforts to expand immunisation programmes are hampered by vaccine availability and cost, since few companies manufacture vaccines to immunise children against various preventable diseases in the developing world and new vaccines - such as inactivated human papillomavirus, pneumococcus, polio, and rotavirus - remain expensive.
Similar views were expressed by Mexico's minister of health Juan Lopez, whose country wants to immunise more people but is hindered by cost and supply problems.
"What we want is support in terms of technology transfer to enable Mexico to manufacture its own vaccines," said Lopez. The country currently imports vaccines from Europe and the United States.
The director of the Kenya Medical Research Institute, Solomon Mpoke, added that vaccine production has been a long-term priority for every country.
"We want to be able to make all our own vaccines to ensure we are self-reliant and able to meet our requirements at all times," Mpoke told SciDev.Net at the forum.
He pointed out that Kenya has successfully produced its own animal vaccines for years at Kenya Vaccines Production Unit, showing that, with adequate guidance, countries can own all aspects of vaccine production.
Martin Friede, programme leader for the WHO Technology Transfer Initiative, told SciDev.Net that the organisation was supportive of any such initiative at a regional or local level, adding that rapid access to vaccines can be an issue of national security.
During the H1N1 influenza pandemic, countries that produced their own influenza vaccines had the most rapid access to vaccines, while countries lacking advanced purchase agreements or local production had delayed access or none at all, he said.
The WHO is facilitating technology transfer to 14 developing countries to help establish or expand production of influenza vaccine.
But Friede warned that, for routine vaccinations, local production could result in products becoming less available or available at a higher price, requiring governments to intervene to ensure local manufacturing facilities remain viable.
"Since vaccine production benefits from economy of scale, the products from small or medium-sized production facilities may cost more than those currently procured on the global market," he said.
"Governments should also take into consideration the significant amount of capital investment needed to establish local vaccine production and the need to have a strong national regulatory system in place to ensure a vaccine of high quality," he added.