A technology-sharing programme for African countries launched on Friday could place the continent on a clear path to addressing vaccine shortage.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has picked six African countries to pilot the technology transfer programme for Covid-19 vaccines.
Tedros Adhanom, the head of the WHO, told a press conference in Brussels that Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal and Tunisia will receive mRNA technology as one way of boosting vaccine equity across the world.
Some countries such as South Africa and Senegal are already set for production as the move implements a policy last announced in 2021 to push for vaccine equity. The mRNA technology is used to produce vaccines such as Pfizer and Moderna.
“Today, I’m delighted to announce the first six African countries that will receive technology from the hub to produce their own mRNA vaccines: Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia,” Dr Tedros said at a joint virtual briefing with Presidents of France and South Africa, as well as the European Council.
The technology produces vaccines that boost immunity by ‘teaching’ body cells to produce proteins that can trigger immune responses against infections, according to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
It came as African leaders engaged producers. This week, on February 16, in Marburg, Germany, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, with Presidents Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana and Macky Sall of Senegal, attended a presentation and discussion on BioNTech vaccine production facilities to be built across Africa.
During the meeting, BioNTech’s modular container prototype, known as BioNTainers was unveiled. The modular systems consist of 12 sea containers housing the same manufacturing process and equipment used in its factory.
“The modular production system is a major technological breakthrough, as we have just witnessed ourselves. It puts advanced vaccine manufacturing within Reach of countries where, only last year, many considered this impossible,” Mr Kagame said, adding that Rwanda will do its part to ensure success and sustainability.
“A commitment of this scale from a major pharmaceutical company is something we have never seen in Africa, and we recognise its significance.”
BioNTech is expected to begin construction to house the BioNTainers in Rwanda later this year. The production line is expected to produce 50 million doses initially and increase thereafter.
Last year, the WHO established its global mRNA technology transfer hub to deal with the hogging of supplies and to boost vaccination rates in poor countries.
The announcement was made at the ongoing European Union-Africa Summit in Brussels even as African countries demand a waiver on intellectual property rights under emergence exemptions to be allowed local mass production. This bid has been opposed in the past by big pharmaceutical companies.
On Wednesday, EU officials told journalists the bloc would be investing $45 million in Africa to boost local vaccine production.
The latest development came after the Rwandan government and the Institut Pasteur de Dakar in Senegal last year signed agreements with BioNTech to construct mRNA vaccine manufacturing facilities in Africa. BioNTech’s manufacturing facility in Marburg, Germany, began production in February 2021 and employs approximately 300 people.
BioNTech, which co-developed the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, is expected by mid-2022 to start construction of a manufacturing facility for mRNA-based vaccines.
Before BioNTech transfers manufacturing capacities to local partners, they plan to initially staff, own and operate the facility to support the safe and rapid launch of vaccine dose production while simultaneously conducting training of local personnel.
As part of the partnership with BioNTech, Kigali and Dakar will also establish facilities for “fill-and-finish” capacities, focusing on the final production stages and bottling of vaccine doses.
According to WHO, Africa imports approximately 99 percent of vaccines administered. Developing the new vaccine manufacturing facilities will significantly reduce the continent’s dependence on imports.
BioNTech expects the initial production line built to produce 50 million doses that can be used to make vaccines for diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and Covid-19.
The African Union (AU) and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention aim to have 60 percent of Africa’s vaccines produced locally by 2040.