BioNTech has announced plans to build a manufacturing facility in Africa to help ramp up production of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines for countries in the continent.
On Tuesday, the German biotech company inked a deal with Rwanda’s government and Institut Pasteur de Dakar in Senegal to begin construction of the facility in mid-2022.
With less than ten percent of its population vaccinated, Africa continues to be deeply affected by global vaccine inequities.
BioNTech, which developed one of the first and most widely administered COVID-19 mRNA vaccines in partnership with Pfizer, will first build a production line capable of producing 50 million doses annually. In addition to COVID-19 vaccines, the line could also be used to make mRNA-based vaccines for other diseases, such as malaria and tuberculosis.
In a news release, BioNTech said it plans to develop and implement a wider production network that will eventually enable the manufacturing of several hundreds of million mRNA vaccine doses per year.
BioNTech went on to say that these efforts are the next step in the company’s commitment to implementing sustainable end-to-end vaccine supply solutions on the African continent.
“Our goal is to develop vaccines in the African Union and to establish sustainable vaccine production capabilities to jointly improve medical care in Africa,” chief executive of BioNTech Ugur Sahin said.
BioNTech will head the construction of the state-of-the-art, end-to-end manufacturing plant with production capacities in accordance with GMP standards. The company will use its expertise and experience from its own ramping up of vaccine doses at its production facility in Marburg, Germany. The facility will also be owned, staffed and operated by BioNTech initially to ensure “safe and rapid initiation of the production of mRNA-based vaccine doses,” the company said. BioNTech then plans to transfer manufacturing know-how and capacities to local partners once the facility has been built and operations established.
“Therefore, BioNTech, the Rwanda Development Board and Institut Pasteur de Dakar in Senegal agreed to swiftly build up the required human resources capacity and systems so that the partners can take over ownership and operational duties,” BioNTech said in the statement.
BioNTech is also in talks with Biovac, a vaccine manufacturer based in Cape Town, to expand their current partnership. The two first partnered in July in a collaboration to ship ingredients from Europe to Biovac’s facility in South Africa for fill-finish duties, with the eventual goal of dispensing 100 million doses of the vaccine to the African Union annually.
Rwanda and Senegal’s Institut Pasteur de Dakar will simultaneously build facilities for the final fill and finish production steps.
However, the People’s Vaccine Alliance is not impressed by the announcement, saying that the initial production target being cited is nowhere near enough.
“Offering to only start building a facility in Africa in the middle of next year that will then at some point produce just 50 million doses — enough for just two percent of the continent’s population — is pittance when just one of their factories in Germany produces more than that each month,” Anna Marriott, policy lead for the group, said in a statement.
The group is also calling for a waiver of patents on the COVID-19 vaccines, saying that the vaccines are “a people’s vaccine, not a profit vaccine.”
BioNTech may expand its mRNA vaccine portfolio to include vaccines for diseases like malaria and tuberculosis in the future, according to a company spokesperson. In July, the company said it was aiming to develop the first mRNA-based malaria vaccine.
Global agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations (UN) health agency, as well as several developing countries, have repeatedly called on vaccine makers to do more to address global vaccine inequities. Requests for the sharing of vaccine recipes and manufacturing capabilities have been shot down by makers like Pfizer and Moderna, who have said it would be easier for them to just ramp up production of the vaccines themselves. However, the announcement by BioNTech provides hope that local COVID-19 vaccine production in countries around the world could soon become a reality.