Covid-19 vaccine makers BioNTech and Pfizer said on Wednesday they had found a South African partner to produce their jab on the African continent for the first time.
The move comes amid growing criticism of vaccine inequality that has seen poor countries lag behind richer ones in the race to protect people from the coronavirus.
Under the deal, Cape Town-based Biovac will complete the final stage of the manufacturing process for the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine, known as “fill and finish,” the companies said in a statement.
However, the project will take time to get started, as the first Pfizer vaccines finished in Africa are not expected until 2022.
Once operational, Biovac is expected to produce more than 100 million doses per year which will be distributed to the 55 countries of the African Union.
“This is a crucial step in strengthening sustainable access to a vaccine in the fight against this tragic global pandemic,” said Morena Makhoana, CEO of Biovac.
“Technical transfer, on-site development and equipment installation activities will begin immediately,” the statement added.
The coronavirus vaccine developed by Germany’s BioNTech and its US partner Pfizer, based on experimental mRNA technology, was the first to be approved in the West late last year.
Studies have shown that it is very effective against Covid-19, including against newer variants.
Another plant in South Africa is already handling the process of filling and finishing the Covid-19 shot developed by the pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson, which uses a traditional method based on a viral vector.
– Patent debate –
As vaccine roll-out is well underway in the West and supply even exceeds demand in some countries, calls have grown for pharmaceutical companies to waive patents on their life-saving jabs.
This has been fiercely opposed by companies themselves and countries like Germany, whose Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that the suspension of intellectual property rights could stifle innovation and would not solve the lack of manufacturing capacity at short term.
Instead, she advocated for licensing agreements and partnerships between vaccine makers and local businesses, an approach taken by BioNTech and Pfizer.
“Our goal is to enable people on all continents to manufacture and distribute our vaccine while ensuring the quality of the manufacturing process and doses,” said Ugur Sahin, co-founder and CEO of BioNTech.
According to remarks prepared at a World Trade Organization summit, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said that the weakening of intellectual property “will only discourage the kind of unprecedented innovation that has made advance vaccines in record time and make collaboration between companies more difficult ”.
Pfizer / BioNTech said it has so far shipped more than one billion doses of the Covid-19 vaccine to more than 100 countries or territories, including through the global Covax vaccine sharing program.
However, the Covax program, supported by the World Health Organization and widely used by African countries, has so far delivered far fewer doses than expected.
– ‘They never come’ –
The WHO estimated earlier this month that only two percent of Africa’s population, or about 16 million people, were fully immunized.
South Africa has the highest number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in Africa, recording more than 2.3 million infections and more than 67,000 deaths.
The country is currently grappling with a brutal third wave of the pandemic, fueled by a lack of vaccines, public weariness with Covid restrictions and the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa last month announced a plan to turn his country into an mRNA vaccine hub, saying Africans “cannot continue to rely on vaccines made outside Africa because they never come ”.
© 2021 AFP