German pharmaceutical company, BioNTech has finalized plans to establish vaccine factories in Africa in order to increase the availability of the vaccine in Africa.
The company would ship containers fitted with the equipment necessary to make the company’s mRNA-based vaccine, save for the final step of putting doses into bottles, a process known as fill and finish. The modular design, presented at a ceremony in Marburg, Germany on Wednesday would first be shipped to either Senegal or Rwanda by the second half of the year.
The system, which consists of 12 containers, could be scaled up easily in the future and modified to manufacture drugs for other diseases, such as malaria, cancer or tuberculosis when they become available, the company said.
BioNTech says the goal is to enable mRNA production on all continents, starting off with the production of up to 50 million doses of vaccine a year within 12 months with the approval of local regulators in Africa.
The slated production figure is only a fraction of the 1.2 billion doses the company produced in Marburg last year. But the vaccines made in the target country would likely be for use there and in other African Union states at a not-for-profit price, BioNTech said.
The company also plans to equip the facilities with foreign staff then later transfer the know-how to local partners to enable independent operation.
The head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, welcomed BioNTech’s plan to increase vaccine production on the continent, saying it would complement the global body’s own effort to foster the use of mRNA technology in South Africa and elsewhere.
WHO took the unusual step last year of teaming up with local companies and scientists to essentially replicate the mRNA-based COVID-19 shot made by US company Moderna.
Despite efforts to provide millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccine to Africa through an international donor mechanism, only about 11 percent of the population on the continent has received the shot, compared to the global average of about 50 percent.
“Given the emergence and spread of variants, the pandemic will not be over until it is over everywhere,” said Michel Sidibe, the African Union’s special envoy for the African Medicines Agency. “This initiative hopefully expands mRNA vaccine production in Africa.”
BioNTech has been criticised in recent times for refusing to suspend its vaccine patents and letting rivals manufacture the shots as part of an effort to make them more widely available, especially in poor countries. The company argues that the process of making mRNA vaccines is difficult and would prefer to work with local partners to ensure consistent quality of the shots worldwide.