BioNTech plans to build modular vaccine factories in Africa

German vaccine maker BioNTech, which developed the first widely approved COVID-19 vaccine with Pfizer, on Wednesday unveiled plans to build manufacturing capacity in Africa that will increase the availability of much-needed medicines on the continent.

The modular design, unveiled at a ceremony in Marburg, Germany, consists of shipping containers equipped with the equipment needed to produce an mRNA-based vaccine from start to finish, with the exception of the final step of filling doses into vials.

BioNTech has come under fire from some campaign groups for refusing to suspend its vaccine patents and allow competitors to produce vaccines as part of an effort to make them more affordable, especially in poor countries. The company claims that the process of creating mRNA vaccines is complex and prefers to work with local partners to ensure consistent vaccine quality around the world.

The first turnkey facility will be shipped to Senegal or Rwanda in the second half of this year, BioNTech said. It plans to begin production of up to 50 million doses of the vaccine per year within 12 months, pending approval from local regulators.

BioNTech said the 12-pot system could easily be expanded in the future and modified to produce vaccines against other diseases that are common in Africa, such as malaria or tuberculosis, when they become available.

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hailed BioNTech’s plan to increase vaccine production on the continent, saying it would complement the global organization’s own efforts to promote the use of mRNA technology in South Africa and elsewhere.

Last year, the WHO took the unusual step of teaming up with local companies and scientists to essentially replicate an mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine made by American company Moderna.

BioNTech said it will staff and operate the facilities at first, but will later transfer the know-how to local partners to enable independent operation.

The vaccines produced there are likely to be used in the country and other African Union countries at a non-commercial price, the report said.

Despite efforts to bring millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccine to Africa through an international donor mechanism, only about 11% of the continent’s population has been vaccinated, compared to a global average of about 50%.

“Given the emergence and spread of options, the pandemic will not end until it ends everywhere,” said Michel Sidibé, African Union Special Envoy to the African Medicines Agency. “We hope this initiative will expand the production of the mRNA vaccine in Africa.”

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