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BioNTech builds vaccine factory in Rwanda

Isaac Mugabi Kigali, Rwanda
June 23, 2022

German pharmaceutical company BioNTech has begun construction of an COVID-19 vaccine plant in Rwanda. When completed, it will be the first mRNA vaccine plant in Africa.

Ghana president Akufo-Addo, Rwanda's president Paul Kagame and the CEO of BioNTech, Ugur Sahin shovel dirt in front of flags
Rwanda's president Paul Kagame (center) breaks ground with Ghana's president Akufo-Addo and BioNTech CEO Ugur SahinImage: Luke Dray/Getty Images

The German pharmaceutical company BioNTech has broken ground for the production site of its COVID-19 vaccine in Rwanda's capital, Kigali. 

Thursday's ceremony was attended by Rwandan President Paul Kagame and other African heads of state, as well as representatives from the European Union and the World Health Organization.

Speaking at the ceremony, Kagame called the breaking of ground a "milestone towards vaccine equity." 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz participated in the ceremony by video link. 

During his speech, Scholz said vaccines could mean the difference between life and death. 

"Today, an essential foundation has been laid for many people to benefit from this blessing of vaccines in the future," Scholz said. "And, if BioNTech's projects are realized, Africa's supply of urgently needed vaccines will improve significantly."

Sign showing projected appearance of BioNTech's Kigali facility
A sign at the grounbreaking ceremony shows what BioNTech's vaccine facility is expected to look likeImage: Luke Dray/Getty Images

First mRNA plant in Africa 

The BioNTech-Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is based on relatively new technology using messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA). 

This vaccine, along with a vaccine from the US-based company Moderna, was among the first to use mRNA technology widely and successfully.

Initially, the 30,000-square-meter (323,000-square-foot) plant in Kigali will contain two modular vaccine production containers and have an estimated annual capacity of about 50 million vaccine doses, according to a BioNTech press release.

Basing the plant on the modular containers will enable the company to scale production as needed, according to BioNTech.

It's expected that the first set of containers will arrive in Rwanda in late 2022, with vaccine production starting 12 to 18 months after that. 

When the Rwanda facility is up and running, it will be the first mRNA vaccine plant in Africa. 

A plant in South Africa already commercially produces COVID-19 vaccines, but these use a more traditional virus-based technology, not mRNA technology.

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Wider network planned

BioNTech said the Rwanda plant would eventually become part of a wider supply network spanning several African nations, including Senegal and South Africa, in the next few years.

All of the vaccines produced within Africa are intended for Africans, according to the company.

The modular production containers could also eventually be used to make mRNA vaccines against malaria or tuberculosis, BioNTech's CEO and co-founder, Ugur Sahin, said at the ceremony in Kigali. 

This would depend, Sahin said, on how these products were developed and what future public-health priorities were. 

BioNTech's malaria vaccine candidates, which are based on its mRNA platform, are expected to enter human trials in 2022, according to a company press release. 

Vaccine inequities

The BioNTech plant is part of the European Union's Vaccine Equity for Africa project, which was officially launched in February. 

"This project represents the immense potential of African and European cooperation," European Commission President von der Leyen said on Thursday. "Our partnership will bring vaccine manufacturing in Africa to the next level."

The project push comes as doses of COVID-19 vaccines finally arrive in force on the continent after a much-criticized delay. 

Low COVID-19 vaccine uptake

Many African nations have a low uptake of COVID-19 vaccines, and only three look like they will meet the World Health Organization's target of 70% coverage with COVID-19 vaccines in all countries by the end of June.

So far, only Mauritius and the Seychelles have vaccinated 70% of their populations. Rwanda is projected to achieve this target by the end of June.

A health worker wearing a mask and a visor draws up a dose of a BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine into a needle
Only three African nations will meet the global target of 70% vaccine coverage by the end of JuneImage: Themba Hadebe/AP Photo/picture alliance

Across the continent, only 17% of Africa's 1.3 billion people are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, compared with over 70% of the population in the European Union — in part because richer nations hoarded supply in 2021, when global demand was greatest, to the chagrin of African nations.

Uptake in Africa has also fallen short of expectations because of factors such as logistical hurdles, misinformation and a lack of urgency in populations.

Guarded optimism

Rwandan commentator Ignatius Ssuuna said the mRNA vaccine plant was good news for Africa. 

Ssuuna lost his father to COVID-19 in 2020. 

He also caught the coronavirus himself. 

"When I tested positive, I was terrified, especially as I didn't know whether I would have access to the vaccine," Ssuuna said. 

Ssuuna expects that the new plant will make COVID-19 vaccines "accessible to everyone."