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Coronavirus: A BioNTech vaccine plant to be built in Rwanda

By Olivier Marbot
Posted on Wednesday, 27 October 2021 19:26

From left to right: Uğur Şahin, BioNTech’s CEO, Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission, Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, and Macky Sall, head of state of Senegal, on 27 August 2021 in Berlin. © Kay Nietfeld/ZUMA Press/ZUMA/REA

Rwanda will house the first vaccine manufacturing plant that uses BioNTech's messenger RNA technology on African soil.

On 26 October, an agreement was signed between the Kigali authorities and the management of the German-based biotech start-up, which became world-famous for producing – alongside the US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer – the most effective Covid-19 vaccine.

The partners want to move quickly. Construction of the production site is due to begin in mid-2022 and, to enable vaccine production to begin as quickly as possible, the plan is to first assemble a complete first production line with a capacity of 50m doses per year. The aim is to then add more lines to gradually increase production capacity.

In the interests of speed, BioNTech will initially manage the industrial site and send its own staff so that production can start as soon as the infrastructure has been completed. However, the agreement signed between the company, the Rwanda Development Board and Dakar’s Pasteur Institute provides for the rapid training of local personnel, as well as the transfer of know-how and ownership of the site to “local partners”.

Malaria and tuberculosis

According to the signatories, the Rwandan site will be home to Africa’s first “robust and decentralised production network, offering a production capacity of several hundred million doses of mRNA vaccine.” The idea is not just to produce anti-Covid serum, but also to later manufacture malaria and tuberculosis vaccines using the same technology.

The agreement’s specifics had already been outlined on 27 August on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Berlin, during a meeting between the Senegalese and Rwandan presidents, European Commission boss Ursula von der Leyen and BioNTech co-founder Uğur Şahin. The four actors had met at the initiative of the Kenup Foundation, a non-profit organisation created in 2014 with the aim of promoting fairer health policies.

They committed to facilitate the rapid establishment of vaccine production units on the continent and reiterated that Senegal and Rwanda were, along with South Africa, the countries most likely to host these industrial sites.

Coming soon to Senegal

The signatories of the Rwandan site agreement also specified that BioNTech was currently discussing the possibility of “extending its collaboration” with Biovac, its partner in South Africa. For the time being, the South African site only does “fill and finish” and has not yet mastered the entire production chain.

No announcement has yet been made regarding the construction of a production unit in Senegal, but this is expected to be the next step in the partnership. The country is regularly cited as one of the most capable of producing vaccines quickly, including by experts at the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, an African Union specialised technical institution.

To date, only 1% of the vaccines administered on the continent are produced in Africa, but the AU has set ambitious targets in this area, as it hopes to increase this to 60% by 2040. The most optimistic cite the examples of Brazil and especially India, which have managed to develop successful national pharmaceutical industries in just a few decades.

The declared desire to harmonise rules, particularly those relating to intellectual property, on a continental scale should make it possible to move forward, even if many obstacles – first and foremost patents held by the major firms – are still in place.

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