BioNTech to expand vaccine production into Africa

11 Jun 2021

Image: © James Thew/Stock.adobe.com

The biotech company said establishing manufacturing capabilities in Africa would likely take about four years.

BioNTech, the biotech company that partnered with Pfizer to deliver an mRNA Covid-19 vaccine, plans to establish production facilities in Africa.

The German company’s co-founder and chief executive, Ugur Sahin, told The Financial Times there is no reason why vaccine production in Africa isn’t possible from a technology point of view. “And because there’s no reason any more, we have to make it possible,” he said.

The move is a part of a larger push from the EU to tackle diseases beyond Covid-19, as it looks to boost manufacturing capacity on the continent. Last month, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen pledged to invest €1bn to build vaccine manufacturing hubs in Africa.

BioNTech’s plans were outlined in a call between Sahin and von der Leyen before the G7 summit this week.

Von der Leyen said the EU wants to help foster a “strong initiative to invest in mRNA, together with our African partners”.

“We are joining forces in a way that everyone brings in the best competences they have,” she said.

Sahin added that he aims for BioNTech to have found and trained a partner in Africa to “fill and finish” vaccine doses in around 12 months, which would make it possible to import vaccines to Africa in bulk.

However, he said that the process of establishing facilities capable of the more technical stages of manufacturing would likely take about four years.

The new technology used to develop mRNA vaccines could prove to be extremely useful in the fight against other diseases on the continent once facilities are up and running.

“This is just the beginning,” said Dr John Cooke, medical director of the RNA Therapeutics Program at the Houston Methodist Research Institute, about the new vaccine technology.

“mRNA vaccines can be used to target almost any pathogen. You put in the code for a particular protein that stimulates an immune response … It’s essentially unlimited.”

Africa’s vaccine shortage

The US has also agreed to purchase 500m vaccine doses from Pfizer and BioNTech, which will be donated to approximately 100 low and lower middle-income countries including those in the African Union.

Earlier this week, the World Health Organization (WHO) expressed concern over the resurgence of Covid-19 in many African countries, saying health systems are seriously unprepared for an increase in cases.

According to BBC News, cases are on an upward trend in 14 countries and new cases rose by more than 30pc in eight countries in the past week. The WHO also said Africa is facing a severe shortage of vaccines, with an estimated shortfall of 700m doses.

Sahin said BioNTech felt a sense of duty to make its vaccine available to as many people worldwide as possible.

“[The agreement with the US] underlines that the joint efforts of the private and the public sector are providing solutions to help end this pandemic,” he said.

Deliveries of 200m doses will begin in August 2021 and continue through the remainder of the year. The further 300m doses for 2022 will be delivered between January and the end of June 2022.

At the G7 summit today (11 June) leaders are set to pledge 1bn coronavirus vaccine doses to poorer countries as part of a plan to vaccinate the world by the end of 2022.

Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

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