BioNTech is preparing for expansion in Africa alongside the EU

BioNTech plans a boost in Africa, with the goal of establishing mRNA vaccine production facilities on the continent as part of a long-term effort to tackle diseases beyond Covid-19.

German biotechnology plans come as the EU moves to strengthen vaccine manufacturing capacity in Africa, which imports more than 99 percent of the jabs it uses.

BioNTech co-founder and CEO Ugur Sahin explained the effort of a joint video call with Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, ahead of the G7 summit in Cornwall.

“On the technology side, there’s no reason to [vaccine production in Africa] it shouldn’t be possible, “Sahin told the Financial Times.” And because there’s no more reason, we have to make it possible. “

Von der Leyen said the EU wanted to help promote a “strong initiative to invest in mRNA, with our African partners”, adding that it was important that the technology be brought to the continent. “We join forces in a way that everyone brings out the best skills they have.”

Africa, and many of its disease-affecting populations, such as malaria, have long been neglected by the pharmaceutical industry in favor of more profitable medication research.

Now rich nations and companies are under intense pressure to increase the availability of Covid-19 vaccines on the continent. Alone 39m jabs they have been administered in Africa so far – just over 2 per cent of world vaccinations.

Last month the European Union and the drug industry were wrong when the Biden administration asked for a direct waiver of the patent to extend global access to vaccines to vaccines and save lives. Brussels argued that the emphasis should be rather on removing export restrictions, expanding production, and using existing intellectual property rules to allow the necessary patent licensing.

Washington will also announce new commitments for lower-income countries ahead of the G7 summit, with plans to acquire 500m doses of BioNTech / Pfizer jabs at cost and donate them to the Covax scheme, supported by the World Health Organization. Cheers.

A medical worker injects the Oxford / AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine in Siaya, Kenya, as the vaccines are delivered to people living away from health facilities. Manufacturing development on the continent will take time, says Ugur Sahin © Brian Ongoro / AFP / Getty

But the development of vaccine manufacturing in Africa will take time. Sahin said he aimed to get BioNTech to find and train a partner in Africa to “fill and finish” vaccine doses in about 12 months, allowing the continent to import vaccines in bulk.

Establishing capacity for the older, more technical stages of manufacturing, when mRNA is produced and then combined with lipid nanoparticles, will probably take about four years, he said.

Proponents of mRNA argue that the new technology, which has only just made its first major breakthrough with the development of coronavirus vaccines, could be an extremely useful tool in fighting disease in developing countries. Structures that produce mRNA can be adapted in a few weeks to make different vaccines, and can usually produce larger amounts in much smaller structures.

BioNTech has revised production targets for its Covid-19 vaccine, developed with US pharmaceutical company Pfizer, to $ 3 billion from $ 2.5 billion by 2021, but the majority will be sent to higher- and middle-income countries . About 1 billion of those doses are expected to be sold at cost to lower-income nations.

An mRNA vaccine for tuberculosis, which German biotechnology is developing with the support of the Gates Foundation, is probably one of the first potential candidates for African production. Sahn said BioNTech now plans to begin clinical trials for treatment within a year. “HIV is a difficult beast,” he added. “Then comes the last one for vaccine development.”

All future BioNTech plants in Africa will produce non-profit treatments, for middle- and low-income countries, Sahin said.

Employees test procedures for manufacturing messenger RNA (mRNA) for the Covid-19 vaccine at BioNTech in Marburg, Germany
Employees test messenger RNA (mRNA) manufacturing procedures for the Covid-19 vaccine at BioNTech in Marburg, Germany © Thomas Lohnes / AFP / Getty

Von der Leyen, who last month announced a plan to invest € 1 billion in vaccine production in Africa, said she believes the African Union’s goal of producing 60 per cent of consumption vaccination of the continent on the continent by 2040 was both feasible and realistic. The EU plans to invest in strengthening the regulatory framework in Africa, helping to increase local and university competencies, and building on a network of existing clinical trials aimed at infectious diseases.

“We need to join forces here,” he said, adding that the EU was in discussions with countries such as Senegal, South Africa, Rwanda and Ghana. The support of institutions such as the European Investment Bank would help encourage investment since the EU has taken some risk, he added.

At the G7 summit where leaders will discuss ways to expand the availability of Covid-19 vaccines, Von der Leyen will be able to call on more countries to increase their exports to other parts of the world. By the end of the week, the EU will produce 700m doses of Covid-19 vaccines, of which about 350m have been exported, he said.

“We will be really happy if other vaccine producers follow our example, because then it would be a completely different situation where it comes to a fair distribution of vaccines.”

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