BioNTech to start building mRNA vaccine manufacturing plant in Africa in mid-2022

BioNTech will construct a facility to make its mRNA vaccines in Africa in mid-2022 to scale up production of its COVID-19 jab for a continent that has been largely left behind in the global rollout of vaccines. Planning for the facility has been finalized and “initial assets” have been ordered, the German biotech said Tuesday.

That timing sets the Pfizer partner up to potentially beat out Moderna in building the first mRNA vaccine manufacturing site on the continent.

Moderna said it plans to pump $500 million into such a facility in Africa, but timing and location were kept under wraps earlier this month. "Mid-2022" is quite vague but at least puts pressure on the company to stick to a publicly disclosed time frame.

A caveat for BioNTech, though: it didn't reveal the precise location nor size of investment in its announcement. A hint might be in its partners on the plan: the Rwandan government and the Institut Pasteur de Dakar in Senegal. 

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Most of Africa’s 50-plus countries have not inoculated more than 10% of their populations, because the continent does not have end-to-end mRNA vaccine manufacturing capabilities. The World Health Organization (WHO) and international bodies have called for increased resources on the continent, and some groups have requested Moderna and Pfizer license their mRNA technology to democratize the vaccine rollout. Pfizer is predicted to reel in $54.5 billion next year for its BioNTech-partnered jab, according to a report last week.

Construction of the plant will be important in the ongoing effort to get the world vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2, which continues to devastate many parts of the world, especially the Global South.

Once fully operational, the plant is expected to produce 50 million vaccine doses per year. That figure will rise to the “several hundreds of millions” after further manufacturing lines and sites are added to the continent, BioNTech said. To help contextualize those figures, the continent is home to more than 1.3 billion people.

The initial production estimate is a "pittance," the People's Vaccine Alliance said in response to the news. 

“Offering to only start building a facility in Africa in the middle of next year that will then at some point produce just 50 million doses – enough for just 2 percent of the continent’s population – is pittance when just one of their factories in Germany produces more than that each month," said Anna Marriott, policy lead for the group, in a statement.

RELATED: Moderna to pour $500M into Africa to meet future mRNA vaccine manufacturing demand

The German biotech will initially staff, own and operate the plant. The company will eventually transfer the manufacturing capabilities to local partners. BioNTech is working with the Rwanda Development Board and Institut Pasteur de Dakar in Senegal to build up human resources and systems so “partners can take over ownership and operational duties,” the company said in a statement. Rwanda's government and the institute will boost the continent's fill and finish capacities to fulfill the local end-to-end process, BioNTech said.

The plan is the result of a meeting among BioNTech executives, Rwanda Minister of Health Dr. Daniel Ngamije, Senegal Minister of Foreign Affairs Aïssata Tall Sall, Director-General of Rwanda Biomedical Centre Dr. Sabin Nsanzimana and Directeur-General of Institut Pasteur de Dakar Dr. Amadou Alpha Sall earlier this fall. The nonprofit kENUP Foundation initiated the meeting.

BioNTech is also working on a malaria vaccine through a project with the foundation.

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WHO’s regional director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, called the future facility a “life-saver” and “game-changer” for the continent.

“This is also crucial for transferring knowledge and know-how, bringing in new jobs and skills and ultimately strengthening Africa’s health security. WHO is ready to work with countries to step up their commitment to vaccine manufacturing,” Moeti said in a statement. Moeti was among WHO leaders in August who called for distribution of vaccines to the unvaccinated before wealthy countries dole out booster doses, saying "as some richer countries hoard vaccines, they make a mockery of vaccine equity.”

The FDA gave the green light for a booster dose of BioNTech's vaccine for certain populations in the U.S. last week, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention subsequently said people can mix and match their additional shot.

RELATED: With Biovac agreement, Pfizer and BioNTech extend their COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing network to Africa

BioNTech and Pfizer are also in discussions about expanding their partnership with Biovac, a Cape Town-based vaccine manufacturer, the German company said Tuesday. The parties came together in July under a collaboration in which drug substance from Europe will be delivered to Biovac’s South Africa facility to handle fill-finish duties and eventually distribute 100 million doses of the vaccine to the African Union annually.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 10:41 a.m. ET to include commentary from the People's Vaccine Alliance.