Pfizer/BioNTech could be the next COVID-19 maker to set up shop in Africa, providing the continent with a local vaccination source.
BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin announced the company’s vision for African manufacturing sites during a press conference at the end of April. Sahin said Pfizer’s vaccine is 91% effective against the B.1.351 variant spreading across Southern Africa.
The first African-made Pfizer doses may not appear until the end of 2022, Sahin said.
Johnson & Johnson has contracted with South Africa’s Aspen Pharmacare Holdings Ltd. to process more than 300 million doses of its one-shot vaccine for distribution across the continent. Aspen will “fill and finish” vaccine vials with imported ingredients rather than create the vaccine from scratch.
In March, South Africa’s Biovac Institute announced plans to build a $241 million facility to produce pharmaceutical ingredients that will help it create a COVID-19 vaccine from the ground up as a partner with COVID-19 vaccine maker ImmunityBio Inc. ImmunityBio has been conducting phase 1 trials in South Africa. The Cape Town facility could produce vaccines for export, according to Biovac CEO Morena Makhoana.
“The deal is really about building the capability, which essentially would be available in about two to three years’ time,” Makhoana told Newzroom Africa in March.
For much of the 20th century, South Africa produced many vaccines from start to finish, including those for polio, yellow fever and diphtheria. Since 2001, South Africa has lacked the technology to produce advanced vaccines, according to Barry Schoub, chair of the country’s ministerial advisory committee on COVID-19 vaccines.
African pharmaceutical makers also need partners willing to share their intellectual property involving vaccines, according to Makoana.
African countries import 99% of all their vaccines.
In the case of COVID-19, many of those vaccines have come from the Serum Institute of India. In April, India shut down all vaccine exports to focus on the enormous COVID-19 outbreak then sweeping the country. The shutdown has cost Africa nearly 150 million doses and thrown the African Union’s vaccination strategy into disarray.
“The greatest lesson that vaccine nationalism has taught us is the critical urgency for Africa to develop, manufacture and distribute its own biotechnology,” South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said during a speech in early April.
The COVID-19 vaccine crisis has inspired African leaders to look more seriously at what it will take to go from 99% imported vaccines to 60% locally made over the coming decades.
On April 12 and 13, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) and African Union hosted 40,000 researchers, business leaders, heads of state and community groups for a virtual summit to discuss the continent’s potential for developing its own vaccine-manufacturing infrastructure.
Five African countries — Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia — are home to 10 vaccine makers, but most of those companies fill, label and package medications, rather than creating them from raw materials. About 80 African companies can produce pharmaceuticals, according to William Kwabena Ampofo, chairperson of African Vaccine Manufacturing Initiative.
Rwanda, Senegal and South Africa have been identified as three countries in which Africa could lay the groundwork for manufacturing the messenger RNA vaccines at the core of Pfizer’s COVID-19 response.
The outcome of the conference was the Partnerships for African Vaccine Manufacturing, a call to increase vaccine research, manufacturing and regulation across Africa.
“[T]he current COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity by providing a platform and significant momentum for African vaccine manufacturing, and that this level of interest and commitment may not last,” the final statement says. “Therefore, immediate action should be taken.”
At the same time, the conference delegates acknowledged the hurdles in their path to success, including a lack of skilled workers, unreliable utilities and constraints on national regulators.
Africa CDC Director Dr. John Nkengasong said during the conference that the manufacturing strategy presents the continent with a major challenge.
“But we are also fully aware that a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step,” he said.