It would not give us any joy to innovate and create all this cutting-edge science for it not to help or be used by people – Bashman.

NAIROBI, Kenya: As the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, Smart Africa Media Managing Editor Elvis Mboya spoke to Zwelethu Bashman, Managing Director of MSD in Sub-Saharan Africa, to help diagnose Africa’s healthcare systems, shine more light on MSD’s plan for equitable healthcare, importance of maintaining pharmaceutical innovation and providing access to new medicines and vaccines to mitigate existing and future disease outbreaks, among others.

Smart Africa Media: Tell us a little more about MSD and its journey in Africa.

Zwelethu Bashman: MSD is a global innovative pharmaceutical company. We use the power of leading-edge science to save and improve lives around the world. Our sub-Saharan headquarters are based in Johannesburg, South Africa, established more than 50 years ago, and from which we have served patients across sub-Saharan Africa by providing vaccines and therapeutics in the areas of HIV, oncology, and infectious diseases. In 1976 we established a medicines packaging plant in South Africa, and as of this year we service 20 African countries with HPV Vaccination programmes supported by GAVI – the vaccines alliance.

How would you diagnose the healthcare system in Africa?

Much of Africa’s population is dependent on underfunded public health services, whilst a small minority has access to well-funded private healthcare. Given that we are the continent with an estimated 70% of the population below the age of 30 and the socio-economic challenges we face, this is not sustainable. We need to relook at how we leverage partnerships to strengthen our healthcare system. Broadly speaking, the HIV prevention and treatment programs as well as the experiences of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has catapulted our healthcare system to become quite resilient in some instances. We saw great instances of great collaboration between governments and private sector companies such as the successful Private Public Partnerships to secure and roll out the COVID-19 vaccines programs and ARV therapy roll out programs a few years before.  These are experiences we should draw from to create partnerships that will address some of the continent’s looming health calamities like cancer. If you think about the impact that simple things such as cancer screening and awareness have years down the line, it’s well worth us investing more time and resources in these programs now to avoid a bigger cancer crisis in years to come.

How can the loopholes be sealed, and success stories strengthened?

No government, organization or individual can address these challenges alone. Partnerships are central to the strengthening of any system, especially in healthcare. This is something we recognise well within MSD and have intentionally invested resources aimed at health system strengthening. One such partnership is with AMREF and Africa CDC around the creation of a pandemic response program which was put together to share experiences and learnings around healthcare workers, as well as displaying how healthcare systems can be more resilient and robust when dealing with pandemics. We also have a partnership with mPharma to create awareness and educate the public about HPV related cancers and the significance of the HPV vaccine in curbing these including cervical cancer which is the second most common cancer in Africa.

When you look at all the interventions, we have across all our therapeutic areas (Oncology, Vaccines, HIV & Infectious diseases), you can see the huge impact we can have on the continent; it becomes incredibly important that these innovations that we create find themselves with the patients that need them. We spend quite a lot of time working on access and access driving solutions and are increasingly looking for more collaborators to find innovative ways to broaden and enable access.

What’s MSD’s plan to partner with African governments to construct local pharmaceutical and medical supplies industries to lower drugs and medical supplies imports?

Having operated in South Africa since 1960, MSD has grown significantly as healthcare has expanded to a broader population in line with the growth and transformation of both the economy and society. So, the first and perhaps most important incentives for attracting investment are economic growth and the expansion of healthcare services to more people. And this is demonstrated by MSDs investment in a manufacturing facility in South Africa over 30 years ago.

Now we know that Africa has some of the fastest growing economies in the world, often accompanied by sizeable populations and significant unmet health needs. And with the signing of the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) – the world’s largest free trade area- the opportunity is significant.

However, in order to realise these opportunities and give life to the agreement key matters need to be considered including the establishment of sizeable funding mechanisms that are able to fund and reimburse health needs at scale.

The pooled procurement we started seeing through the Africa Union’s Africa Vaccines Acquisition Task Team (AVATT), as an example, is an important step and we have seen some success in the local manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines as a result. To build on this, it’s critical to ensure policy and regulatory harmonisation at an intra-and- inter regional level, as well as the establishment of regional hubs in recognition of the importance of competitive advantage and to allow for economies of scale.

As the World emerges from the pandemic, what’s your firm’s plan in maintaining pharmaceutical innovation and providing access to new medicines and vaccines to prevent any future disease outbreak?

Covid-19 has shown us how quickly and rapidly things change. Our commitment has always been to focus where we can have the most impact, which is to use the power of leading-edge science to save and improve lives around the world. This was our purpose before the pandemic and is still very much central to our organizational aspiration.  We also have a long track record of making our medicines and vaccines accessible and affordable globally. It would not give us any joy to innovate and create all this cutting-edge science for it not to help or be used by people. It is about maximizing the amount of help that we are giving people and ensuring a lasting impact on the globe, not just the continent.

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