BioNTech is planning a push into Africa, aiming to establish mRNA vaccine production facilities on the continent as part of a long-term effort to tackle diseases beyond Covid-19.
The German biotech’s plans come as the EU moves to bolster vaccine manufacturing capacity in Africa, which imports more than 99 per cent of the jabs it uses.
BioNTech co-founder and chief executive Ugur Sahin outlined the effort on a joint video call with Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, ahead of the G7 summit in Cornwall.
“From the technology side, there is no reason why [vaccine production in Africa] should not be possible,” Sahin told the Financial Times. “And because there’s no reason any more, we have to make it possible.”
Von der Leyen said the EU wanted to help foster a “strong initiative to invest in mRNA, together with our African partners”, adding that it was important that the technology is brought to the continent. “We are joining forces in a way that everyone brings in the best competences they have.”
Africa, and many of the diseases that afflict populations, such as malaria, has long been neglected by the pharmaceutical industry in favour of research into more profitable medications.
Now wealthy nations and companies are under intense pressure to boost the availability of Covid-19 vaccines on the continent. Only 39m jabs have been administered in Africa so far — just over 2 per cent of global vaccinations.
Last month the EU and the drugs industry were wrongfooted when the Biden administration called for an outright patent waiver to expand global vaccine access to the shots and save lives. Brussels has countered that the focus should rather be on the removal of export restrictions, the expansion of production, and the use of existing intellectual property rules to allow necessary patent licensing.
Washington will also announce new commitments to lower-income countries ahead of the G7 summit, with plans to purchase 500m doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer jabs at cost and donating them to the Covax scheme, backed by the World Health Organization.
But developing vaccine manufacturing in Africa will take time. Sahin said he aimed for BioNTech to have found and trained a partner in Africa to “fill and finish” vaccine doses in around 12 months, which would enable the continent to import vaccines in bulk.
Establishing capacity for the earlier, more technical stages of manufacturing, when mRNA is produced and then combined with lipid nanoparticles, would likely take about four years, he said.
Advocates of mRNA argue that the new technology, which only had its first big breakthrough with the development of coronavirus vaccines, could be an extremely useful tool to fight disease in developing countries. Facilities producing mRNA can be adjusted within weeks to make different vaccines, and can usually produce larger amounts in much smaller facilities.
BioNTech has revised production targets for its Covid-19 vaccine, developed with US pharmaceutical company Pfizer, up to 3bn from 2.5bn for 2021, but the majority will be sent to higher and middle-income countries. About 1bn of those doses are expected to be sold at-cost for lower-income nations.
An mRNA vaccine for tuberculosis, which the German biotech is developing with support from the Gates Foundation, is likely to be one of the first potential candidates for African production. BioNTech is currently aiming to start clinical trials for the treatment within a year, Sahin said. “HIV is a difficult beast,” he added. “So that comes last for vaccine development.”
All of BioNTech’s future facilities in Africa would produce treatments at non-profit rates, for middle and low-income countries, Sahin said.
Von der Leyen, who last month announced a plan to invest €1bn in vaccine production in Africa, said she believed the African Union’s goal of producing 60 per cent of the continent’s vaccine consumption within the continent by 2040 was both do-able and realistic. The EU plans to invest in strengthening the regulatory framework in Africa, helping boost local skills and universities, and building on an existing clinical trial network targeted at infectious diseases.
“We need to join forces here,” she said, adding that the EU was in discussions with countries including Senegal, South Africa, Rwanda and Ghana. Support from institutions such as the European Investment Bank would help incentivise investment as the EU took on some of the risk, she added.
At the G7 summit where leaders will discuss ways of broadening the availability of Covid-19 vaccines, Von der Leyen is likely to call on more countries to increase their exports to other parts of the world. By the end of the week the EU will have produced 700m doses of Covid-19 vaccines, of which around 350m have been exported, she said.
“We would be really happy if other vaccine producers would follow our example, because then it would be a completely different situation where fair distribution of vaccines is concerned.”