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Morocco in the race for the anti-Covid-19 vaccine

 The kingdom is participating in phase 3 trials of the Chinese vaccine candidate Sinopharm with the objective of providing priority to Moroccans but also to other countries on the continent.

The syringe manufacturing and filling line of the Moroccan industrialist Sothema, approached to participate in the manufacture in Morocco for the future Chinese anti-Covid vaccine Sinopharm. Sothema

 Hastily mounted in early September in the Ibn Rochd University Hospital Center (CHU) in Casablanca the white canvas marquee had gone unnoticed until this surprise announcement from the royal cabinet on Monday, November 9. Morocco is preparing to launch a massive vaccination operation against the coronavirus. But there is still a long way to go before mass vaccination.

Under the large tent of the CHU, the team of Professor Kamal Marhoum El Filali, head of the infectious diseases department, will carry out the last blood tests until November 15, which will make it possible to check the level of immunity acquired by the 200 volunteers who participate in phase 3 of testing of the vaccine candidate of Chinese Sinopharm. A vaccine trial for which Morocco signed a partnership on August 20 and in which Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan, Peru and Argentina are participating. Enough to bring together a cohort of more than 50,000 participants. And a first for the kingdom.

This Tuesday in October, about twenty young men and women, badges around their necks, wait in silence. Mainly from the security services, they were kept incommunicado and prohibited from communicating with the media. During September and October, they received two doses of the vaccine three weeks apart, according to Sinopharm's protocol. Today is the last step. They take turns passing behind thick curtains, where nurses take blood samples. 

The same operation is carried out at the Avicenna University Hospital in Rabat and at the military hospital in the capital. In all, 600 nationals of the country participated in these double-blind trials. 'We still have samples to be taken to analyze the antibodies and thus ensure the immunological response,indicates the infectious disease specialist, who has been coordinating the experiment in Casablanca for more than two months. But we can already say that it is well tolerated. The patients were watched very closely.'

"Unprecedented scale"

As for the future vaccination campaign, presented as an operation of "unprecedented scale" by the royal cabinet, it will primarily target "front-line personnel" such as caregivers, public authorities and security forces, as well as the "elderly or vulnerable to the virus" , before being extended to all adults, according to the statement.

In the hospital environment, the government's eagerness to announce a campaign that cannot be carried out for several months leaves doubtful. 'Having a vaccine is one thing, organizing a massive campaign is another! , says a doctor from Casablanca, on condition of anonymity. We must already prepare the ground, identify the vaccination zones and the human resources who will take care of them. And above all to convince the population. It's not tomorrow the day before!' . It will be all the more complicated as the authorities aim to vaccinate 80% of citizens over 18, or more than 20 million Moroccans, at the rate of two doses per person.

If no date or origin of the vaccine is specified in the official press release, the Sino-Moroccan agreement for phase 3 trials provides for the delivery of 10 million doses to the kingdom before the end of the year in the event of convincing results. The Minister of Health, Khalid Ait Taleb, has also confirmed that an agreement was also signed on September 18 with the British AstraZeneca under the European flag, providing for the supply of 17 million doses, plus an additional 3 million as an option, this which would increase Morocco's capacity to vaccinate between 13.5 and 15 million people at the rate of two doses per person. Finally, according to the Moroccan press, the government is currently in negotiations with the Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and CanSino Biologics laboratories to further increase the coverage of its population.

Despite these options on supplies, the time is therefore not for mass vaccination before the start of 2021. Even if Sinopharm said in a press release on Wednesday that the results obtained following clinical trials "are better provided that ", for the Chinese laboratory as for AstraZeneca or Pfizer, only the analyzes of phases 1 and 2 (safety and tolerance of the product) have been published in scientific journals. Once phase 3 is completed and after analysis of its effectiveness, it will still be necessary to pass the bar of approval by the World Health Organization (WHO), the only one authorized to give the green light to a laboratory, whatever it may be. or, for large-scale manufacturing. And faced with the runaway race for vaccines and the announcements that have followed one another since the summer, the UN agency reminded that this approval is the result of "rigorous procedures" .


But, for Morocco, the emergency is indeed there and the government is well aware of it. Health emergency first because the country is facing an upsurge in the pandemic. The kingdom, which has recorded 270,626 cases of coronavirus contamination and 4,506 deaths due to Covid-19 since the start of the health crisis, has recorded record figures in recent days with more than 5,000 new daily cases of contamination. Currently, 42,690 people are "active" cases, including 959 in intensive care, increasing the pressure on hospitals already severely tested.

Economic emergency then since Morocco officially entered recession at the end of June and that growth threatens to drop by almost 7 points compared to forecasts at the beginning of the year. According to government statistics, nearly one in two Moroccans is unemployed today and household income has been halved.

Commercial emergency finally. Because, by signing a partnership agreement with the Chinese giant, the Cherifian kingdom is making a place for itself in the race for the manufacture of the vaccine on its soil, after having ensured a rapid supply to its population as soon as the emergency authorization is granted. in the Chinese vaccine market. 'The vaccine trial was introduced in Morocco within a global framework of strategic cooperation which includes the vaccine trial itself, the supply, detailed the Minister of Health Ait Taleb on the media Radio 2M, September 28, but also technology transfer so that the country becomes a vaccine producer.'

The continent in sight

With the long-term possibility of producing for other countries on the continent in sight. Because the Moroccan pharmaceutical industry, among the most dynamic on the continent with those of South Africa, Algeria, Kenya, Egypt, Tanzania, has the means to fulfill its ambition. With its 33 production sites and 40 brands, the kingdom manufactures around 70% of its domestic demand while exporting between 8% and 10% of its production, particularly to sub-Saharan Africa.

The Minister of Health has already announced on Media 24 that the Cité Mohammed VI Tanger Tech had been selected to develop Moroccan expertise in the transfer of technology planned for sustainable production, if the coronavirus were to become endemic and require regular vaccination campaigns, such as seasonal flu.

While waiting for this second phase of production, Morocco already has the industrial capacity to bottle the raw material of the vaccine and even to do what is called in the pharmaceutical jargon of "fill and finish" to produce several million pre-filled syringes. The Sothema company, the only company to have this type of production line already in operation, inaugurated in January 2019 in Bouskoura three new production units of anticancer active ingredients for Morocco and the rest of the continent. From a good source, the industrialist, who advised the Moroccan government in setting up the Chinese vaccine trial, has been approached in recent days by the Chinese giant Sinopharm.

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