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Africa looks to kickstart COVID vaccine production

Martina Schwikowski
October 27, 2021

As Africa struggles to stem vaccine inequity, biotechnology giants BioNTech and Moderna have announced plans to build factories on the continent.

The production of yellow fever vaccine at the Institut Pasteur in Dakar
The production of yellow fever vaccine at the Institut Pasteur in Dakar, where a possible collaboration with BioNTech is in the worksImage: Ute Grabowsky/photothek/picture alliance

As countries around the world hit COVID vaccine milestones, many African nations remain worryingly behind in their initial rollout plans.

But two major companies are looking to change that. Moderna and BioNTech — which have both manufactured effective mRNA vaccines — are now engaged both working to boost production capacities in Africa. 

Africa has so far largely relied on supplies from overseas. A few days ago, US company Moderna announced that it was intensifying its search for a site on the continent.

Meanwhile, Germany-based BioNTech — alongside its US partner Pfizer — has also initiated steps towards building its first production facility for its mRNA vaccines in Africa as early as mid-2022. 

Factory plans in the works

According to BioNTech, a memorandum of understanding has been signed with the Rwandan government and the Institut Pasteur de Dakar in Senegal. 

"We will work together to build a regional production network to support access to African-produced vaccines for Africa," BioNTech co-founder Ugur Sahin announced on Tuesday. 

An infographic showing vaccination progress across Africa

A production line with the capacity to produce 50 million COVID vaccine doses per year is currently in the works. The goal, Sahin said, is to develop vaccines with African Union member states and secure sustainable vaccine production capacities which will also improve overall medical care in Africa. That could mean vaccines against other diseases such as malaria, could also be produced.

Following Moderna's announcement a week earlier, John Nkengasong, director of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), welcomed the news, saying that less than 5% of Africans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Most of the vaccines that have reached Africa have come via the COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access) initiative, as well as donations. While continents like Europe are now trying to combat vaccine fatigue, Africa is still hoping to ramp up its vaccine drive.

Requirement: Stable health system

Moderna said it hopes that its own factory in Africa will produce up to 500 million vaccine doses a year. According to the company's co-founder and CEO, Noubar Afeyan, the most important thing will be to ensure good working conditions.

Moderna co-founder and chairman Noubar Afeyan gestures as he speaks during an interview
Moderna-Boss Noubar Afeyan wants to invest $500 million (€430 million) in production plantsImage: Guglielmo Mangiapane/REUTERS

"It's about having trained personnel who can help us with at least some of the clinical tests we need," Afeyan told Reuters news agency. "We have several countries on our radar that already have good health care systems and are very interested in working in this area. So we will find partners, and put the main investment of about $500 million (€430 million) into building this facility."

Moderna wants to set up the facilities so the company can produce multiple vaccines, he explained.

"In the future, if there is a pandemic — which there certainly will be — we can retool the facility very quickly to produce the pandemic vaccine," he said.

Moderna has confirmed that Rwanda, Senegal and South Africa could all be potential sites for the planned vaccine factory in Africa. But like BioNTech and Pfizer, Moderna has not yet made a final decision. 

South Africa set to become vaccine hub

Each candidate for the vaccine facilities has its own strengths to offer: South Africa has medical research capabilities and a pharmaceutical industry, Senegal's Pasteur Institute now produces yellow fever vaccines, while Rwanda has expressed interest in manufacturing vaccines and drugs. 

South Africa's Biovac Institute already produces traditional vaccines and could become a vital partner on the continent for BioNTech and Pfizer. 

"Biovac is in the process of making the necessary infrastructure changes over the next few months to initiate the technology transfer led by Pfizer," director of the African Vaccine Manufacturing Initiative (AVMI), Patrick Tippoo told DW from Cape Town. 

Workers produce vaccines at a BioNTech plant in Marburg, Germany
A BioNTech plant in Marburg, Germany: The company wants to begin production in Africa in mid-2022Image: Boris Roessler/dpa/picture alliance

The company hopes to apply for a development license "in the fall of 2022," after which the commercial production of COVID vaccines could begin.

BioNTech also aims to start production in the middle of next year. Any future deals could set up South Africa to become a vaccine hub: Tippoo says US vaccine manufacturer Johnson & Johnson is now in talks with local pharmaceutical company Aspen to make their vaccine under license.

The collaboration emulates a number of similar partnerships around the world: Egypt has been working with Chinese vaccine manufacturer Sinovac since August 2021, while Ghana has also announced plans to produce vaccines locally.

But how much this development contributes to reducing the continent's 2-billion-dose vaccine gap depends on how quickly the vaccines can reach the market, explains Tippoo. Additional supplies from abroad may also still be needed, especially against new COVID-19 mutations against which established vaccines may no longer be effective. 

German-African Business Association chief executive Christoph Kannengiesser
German-African Business Association chief executive Christoph Kannengiesser says Africa needs "more diversification, stronger partnerships and private investments"Image: Metodi Popow/imago images

Working towards greater autonomy

Christoph Kannengiesser, the chief executive of the German-African Business Association, stresses the importance of being able to produce "innovative and highly effective vaccines on the continent in order to increase capacities globally."

"But also so that Africa can get out of the role of taking what others leave to them," he told DW.

Building highly complex plants takes time, so trust in Africa and its partners is essential, Kannengiesser said. If done right, it could also open doors towards the greater diversification of supply chains, stronger partnerships and private investment. 

Greater autonomy leads to health systems becoming more resilient overall, Kannengiesser explained: "It's an economic imperative."

African vaccine production to 'make a difference'