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Senegal and Rwanda have signed an agreement with German company BioNTech – one of the pioneers in the development of a COVID-19 vaccine – for the construction of the company’s first start-to-finish factories to make messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines in Africa, as first reported by the Associated Press (AP).
BioNTech, which developed the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, said that construction will start in mid-2022. The company is working with the Institut Pasteur in Dakar and the Rwandan Government.
Pfizer and BioNTech made global headlines during the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-2021 by being the first companies to develop a highly effective vaccine using revolutionary mRNA technology. Although the health crisis continues, large-scale vaccination campaigns have helped to dramatically decrease the number of deaths and hospitalizations. However, in sub-Saharan Africa, much of the population has not yet received the same access to life-saving vaccines, as is the case in the U.S., Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, which has caused concern among global health professionals.
The Washington Post notes that the novel mRNA process uses the genetic code for the spike protein of the Coronavirus and is thought to trigger a better immune response than traditional vaccines. Scientists hope the technology, which is easier to scale up than traditional vaccine methods, might ultimately be used to make vaccines against other diseases, including malaria.
“State-of-the-art facilities like this will be life savers and game changers for Africa and could lead to millions of cutting-edge vaccines being made for Africans, by Africans, in Africa,” said Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’ss Regional Director for Africa. “This is also crucial for transferring knowledge and know-how, bringing in new jobs and skills, and ultimately strengthening Africa’s health security.”
According to Ugur Sahin, co-founder and CEO of BioNTech, the company’s goal is “to develop vaccines in the African Union and to establish sustainable vaccine production capabilities to jointly improve medical care in Africa.”
Meanwhile, it is no coincidence that Rwanda and Senegal are the two sub-Saharan countries cooperating on this ground-breaking initiative. For many years, Rwanda has sought to position itself as a knowledge-based ICT hub in the region and invested strongly in science and R&D capabilities. Senegal, for its part, is home to some of the top-ranked universities and hospitals on the continent.
At the onset of the pandemic, alarmist voices from the global scientific community anticipated that sub-Saharan Africa would be the worst affected region in the world, due to the weakness of public health systems in many African countries. But almost two years into the pandemic, many sub-Saharan countries like Senegal and Rwanda have managed to achieve far lower case loads, as well as lower incidences of mortality, than other more developed countries in the Global North. However, economic hardship has been felt particularly hard across sub-Saharan Africa, as lockdowns and similar measures to contain the virus curbed real GDP growth and stalled large-scale projects.
The challenge remains in that Africa still has limited capacity for vaccine production. Only Tunisia, Senegal, Egypt, Ethiopia and South Africa have varying capabilities to produce and fill or finish vaccines. The largest and most integrated facility is the Biovac Institute in Cape Town. Africa’s lack of manufacturing capability contrasts strongly with developing countries such as India and Brazil, which have extensive pharmaceutical production capabilities.
Recently, American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer signed a letter of intent with the Biovac Institute for 100 million doses per year. The deal covers the importation of the drug substance in bulk, the filling of vials and the distribution of the product in Africa and elsewhere. It is precisely because of this very short list of countries in sub-Saharan Africa with the technical capacity to manufacture vaccines that the recent agreement between Senegal and Rwanda is so important for Africa’s collective fight against COVID-19.
The BioNTech plan entails the construction of a containerized manufacturing unit in Germany that will then be installed in Rwanda, thus greatly shortening the construction period for a vaccine facility by at least a year, and reducing the risk of delays. While the facility will be initially managed and operated by BioNTech staff, ownership and expertise will be transferred to local operations over time. At present, this type of expertise does not exist in Rwanda and could take up to a decade to develop, based on the experience of Biovac in South Africa. The deal between BioNTech, Senegal and Rwanda includes crucial technology transfer that will happen in the second phase of the contract, as well as a license agreement that covers intellectual property rights.
On October 26, The Washington Post reported that BioNTech aims for the facility in Africa to eventually produce approximately 50 million doses of the vaccine per year, with the capacity for further increases. Furthermore, BioNTech said it is in discussions for expanding its partnership with South African vaccine manufacturer Biovac. Biovac will assemble the vaccine using ingredients provided by BioNTech, a process called “fill and finish”. Production will begin in 2022, with the goal of producing more than 100 million finished doses per year.
The recent agreement among BioNTech, Senegal and Rwanda will undoubtedly change the face of the pandemic in emerging markets by giving them the tools to fight the pandemic on their own. Countries like Senegal and South Africa are demonstrating that they are eager to return to pre-pandemic normalcy, in spite of the remaining challenges, by hosting major international conferences while adhering to the highest standards of safety protocols, utilizing both PCR and rapid antigen testing kits for effective screening. Dakar will host the MSGBC Oil, Gas & Power 2021 Conference & Exhibition from December 13-14. The oil and gas industry is a strategic and vital economic source of revenue for many sub-Saharan countries, with producers from Equatorial Guinea to South Sudan having made ample use of testing to keep NOCs and IOCs in business with little or no lost production.