BioNTech, the biotech company which partnered with Pfizer to deliver its mRNA Covid-19 vaccine, has announced plans to establish production facilities in Africa.

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

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.

Von der Leyen said the EU wanted 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 said 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 added that the process of establishing facilities capable of the more technical stages of manufacturing would likely take about four years.

While building manufacturing capabilities will take time, 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,” says Dr John Cooke, medical director of the RNA Therapeutics Program at the Houston Methodist Research Institute.

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

Africa’s vaccine shortage

Pfizer and BioNTech have also agreed to provide the US with 500m vaccine doses, 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 infections 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.

WHO also said Africa is facing a severe shortage of vaccine at the same time, with an estimated shortfall of 700m doses.

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

“Today’s agreement 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 end of June 2022.

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

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Author: Jenny Darmody

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