The EU plans to throw its weight behind a push to expand vaccine manufacturing in Africa after the coronavirus pandemic has underscored a need to broaden the production of life saving jabs.

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, is expected to back proposals to establish strategic manufacturing hubs in African countries at a global health summit in Rome on Friday, officials said.

The EU move comes as the coronavirus crisis adds urgency to longstanding efforts to cut African countries’ dependence on imports of drugs to combat deadly diseases that ravage the continent. The bloc is also keen to promote initiatives to increase international vaccine production, which it argues is a better way to improve poor nations’ access to Covid-19 vaccines than the patent waivers proposed by the US this month.

The EU’s contribution could include both direct EU aid and funding from national development agencies and the European Investment Bank, European officials said. Alongside the funding, which could extend into the hundreds of millions of euros, Brussels wants to help build up regulatory capacity, including the establishment of the African Medicines Agency — a continent wide drug regulator that was conceived in 2014 but has yet to get off the ground.

Commission officials have also held preliminary talks about the plans with pharmaceutical industry representatives, people familiar with the matter said.

The European efforts are designed to mesh with an African Union goal set in April for up to 60 per cent of Africa’s routine vaccine needs to be supplied from within the continent by 2040, up from just 1 per cent now. Given the long timeframes involved in creating manufacturing capacity, the changes would be aimed at dealing with possible future pandemics and perennial threats such as yellow fever.

Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance, said it was “very welcome” that the EU was taking the issue of vaccine manufacturing seriously. “The EU’s intent is genuine — I don’t think it is necessarily geopolitical. They are hosting the global health summit and clearly they want to do a couple of big things,” she said.

Alakija said she wanted to see “catalytic support for manufacturing in Africa, be it in terms of funding, or technical assistance,” as well as EU support for the waiving of intellectual property rights. The alliance had three sites in mind for future manufacturing centres, she added — the Institut Pasteur in Senegal, Rwanda and South Africa.

The European Commission, the EIB and several EU member states including Germany and France are already supporting the expansion of the Institut Pasteur. European officials also see prospects for boosting manufacturing in other countries, including Egypt.

In non-pandemic years, Africa uses roughly a quarter of global vaccine production for campaigns against diseases such as measles and polio. Many of Africa’s vaccine doses come from the Serum Institute of India, but a recent block on exports from India of Covid-19 vaccines as the disease surges there has highlighted the danger of being dependent on a single foreign supplier.

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the AU convened a virtual conference in April to fast-track the development of vaccine manufacturing capacity on the continent. President Macky Sall of Senegal tweeted after meetings in Brussels with EU officials last month that Covid-19 vaccine production would “soon be a reality” in his country.

Sall and other African leaders have welcomed the Biden administration’s backing for patent waivers on Covid-19 vaccines, saying this would advance production in Africa and elsewhere. The measures would allow pharmaceutical manufacturers to make “copycat” vaccines without fear of being sued for infringing intellectual property rights.

But EU officials insist the move does not address the manufacturing knowhow and technology transfers needed by countries seeking to build vaccine manufacturing capacity. Brussels has also argued that existing international agreements on intellectual property already offer some flexibility on sharing vaccine IP, including possibilities for compulsory licensing.