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Will Africa finally be able to produce its own Covid-19 vaccines?
On 16 February, the German laboratory BioNTech, which co-developed the first messenger RNA vaccine with Pfizer, presented its plan to deploy mobile production units on the continent at the inauguration of its new factory in Marburg. The event was attended by three African heads of state: Senegal’s Macky Sall, Ghana’s Nana Akufo-Addo and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame.
More than a year after the first doses were administered and two years after the start of the pandemic, Africa is still the continent with the least number of people vaccinated against Covid-19. “Only 10% of Africans are vaccinated, or even 5 or 6% in low-income countries, while more than 60% of people in developed countries are vaccinated. This situation is not fair,” says WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in an interview that we will be publishing shortly. “Today,” says the Nigerian, “80% of the world’s vaccines are exported by 10 countries. We need to decentralise this production,” she says.
In response to this situation, which has been the subject of debate for several months, the German pharmaceutical giant has designed a mobile factory called the “BioNTainer”, which will have an initial capacity of up to 50 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine per year.
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The first models are expected in Rwanda and Senegal during the second quarter of 2022 and the first doses should be available 12 months later. South Africa would then “potentially” join the production network. It is worth noting that it can take three years to build a conventional factory.
Training local specialists
BioNTech’s kit plant is capable of handling the entire manufacturing process. It consists of two modules made up of 12 containers in total, one for manufacturing the mRNA and the other for finalising the vaccine serum, which must then be bottled elsewhere. Together, the two modules will require 800 m² of space.
Although some 50,000 steps need to be meticulously followed to manufacture the vaccine, “the idea is to standardise the container, to validate the process in advance” before installing it, Sahin told AFP. BioNTech employees will work there before training local specialists with a view to transferring skills in the “medium or long term”, according to a statement from the German group.
BioNTech’s “container laboratory” plan is part of the company’s development strategy, which aims to establish itself on all the continents. “Increasing local production is essential”, given that more than 100 countries “may not reach the target that we have set of vaccinating 70% of the population by the middle of this year,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, who was also present in Marburg.
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