WHO to Provide Africa with Technology to Produce Vaccines, and BioNTech with Modular Factories

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organization Director General, announced Feb. 18 on the sidelines of the EU-Africa summit that a first group of six African countries has been chosen to set up mRNA vaccine production: Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia.

In 2021, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the WHO set up the “global mRNA technology transfer hub”. Its aim is to support manufacturers in low- and middle-income countries to “produce their own vaccines, ensuring that they have all the necessary operating procedures and know-how to manufacture mRNA vaccines at scale and according to international standards.” While the immediate emergency is the Coronavirus, the facilities should later expand manufacturing to other vaccines (malaria, tuberculosis, HIV), and many medicines.

In fighting the current pandemic, Africa has been scandalously abandoned by wealthy countries, which hoarded the vaccines for their own populations, often way in excess of the quantities needed, or exported doses under conditions which made it impossible for African countries to actually use them on time, due to a lack of infrastructure. As a result, only 11% of the African populations have been vaccinated, the lowest rate in the world.

On Feb. 11, Dr. Tedros was in South Africa to visit the Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines Center, which has produced the first mRNA COVID vaccine made on the continent using Moderna’s sequence. He expects this vaccine “to be more suited to the contexts in which it will be used, with fewer storage constraints and at a lower price.” However, it won’t be ready for clinical trials until Nov. 2022. Meanwhile, a recent World Bank report estimates that the pandemic has increased by up to 40 million the number of Africans living in extreme poverty.

Also last week, the German-based BioNTech biotechnology company, which produced the first anti-COVID mRNA vaccine together with Pfizer, announced it has designed a “vaccine manufacturing factory” made up of shipping containers, that could be sent to several African countries to allow their vaccine to be produced on the continent. One day before the EU-Africa summit, on Feb. 16, the presidents of Rwanda, Ghana and Senegal visited BioNTech’s site in Marburg, Germany, together with Dr. Tedros, to discuss the concept and its challenges.

BioNTech intends to provide the shipping containers, raw materials and know-how at no cost. In return, the host country would provide the land and ensure the infrastructure needed for production and distribution, as well as the manpower. The EU has said it would help fund training programs for the medical staff. According to the company, two two-story containers could produce up to 50 millions doses of vaccine per year.

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