African health officials were on Thursday celebrating what one called a “bold and wonderful” breakthrough after the Biden administration threw its weight behind a temporary suspension of intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines.

African Union officials hope that at least three countries — South Africa, Senegal and Rwanda — will develop the capacity to produce vaccines for the continent, including the mRNA-type vaccines that emerged as an innovative technology against Covid-19.

John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, welcomed the US administration’s backing of an IP waiver, a position that is supported by dozens of developing countries led by South Africa and India.

It would, he said, “definitely be a great influence to facilitate the mRNA manufacturing agenda”, adding that there are “very focused discussions” about producing vaccines on the continent.

South Africa has some of the continent’s most advanced vaccine knowhow, including Aspen, a Durban-based company that plans to “finish and fill” — though not make from scratch — 300m doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine this year. The Pasteur Institute in Dakar, Senegal, also has vaccine-producing experience, making small quantities of yellow fever jabs each year.

In addition, Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, suggested Kigali could become a vaccine hub. “It is important for Africa to forge public-private partnerships for vaccine manufacturing on our continent,” he said last month, adding that Africa needed to accelerate a continental approach to medicines regulation. “Vaccine equity cannot be guaranteed by goodwill alone,” he said, adding that it was time for African countries to stop “being sorry for ourselves” and act.

Africa is extremely dependent on India for its vaccine production, a weakness that has been exposed by a temporary Indian government ban on the export of Covid-19 jabs. Less than 1 per cent of Africans have received a single dose of Covid-19 vaccine and new supplies have all but dried up.

Officials warned there was still a long way to go before African manufacturers could start production. “The fact that the US has indicated it is willing to waive IP rights does not mean that it is actually going to happen,” said Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance, who anticipated pushback from pharmaceutical companies and perhaps other countries in the EU and elsewhere.

The first step, said Rebecca Enonchong, a Cameroonian technology entrepreneur and board member of the World Health Organisation Foundation, was to “ensure the patent issue was not an issue”. But even then, she said, it would take time to build up the physical and skills capacity necessary to make mRNA vaccines. There is also a global shortage of vaccine inputs, including nucleotides, enzymes and lipids as well as of vials, caps and syringes. “I think it is unlikely that we will be able to ramp up for this pandemic,” Enonchong said.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chair of Biocon, a Bangalore-based biotech company, said she did not see IP as the biggest obstacle. “Today, everybody is talking about patents, patents and patents. Even if they don’t enforce patents, how many people can produce Moderna vaccines at scale?” she said, referring to one of the mRNA vaccines.

Building manufacturing capacity in the developing world was “the next big issue”, said Fatima Hassan, founder of the Health Justice Initiative, a South African campaigner for access to vaccines. There had been at least 50 applications already to a WHO hub for transferring mRNA technology, she said, which “indicates that there is definitely interest around the world”.

Two decades ago, South Africa led the battle, along with Brazil, against pharmaceutical companies’ defence of patents on HIV medicines. Legal victories finally forced companies to slash prices of antiretroviral drugs for developing countries, but not before millions of people had died of the disease. South African diplomats pressing for the temporary suspension of patents on Covid-19 vaccines said that “passing this waiver makes ethical, epidemiological, and economic sense”.

Additional reporting by Amy Kazmin in New Delhi