Facing uncertain vaccine demand, Moderna halts mRNA plant buildout in Kenya

Moderna made headlines in 2021 with a commitment to bringing more mRNA manufacturing capabilities to Africa, eventually landing on Kenya as the site of a $500 million plant project. Now, amid waning global vaccine demand, the company has hit pause on the endeavor.

The Spikevax maker is taking a step back to evaluate future demand for mRNA vaccines in Africa as it has not received any vaccine orders from the continent since 2022, Moderna said in a statement.

Cancelations of previous orders have stacked up to “more than $1 billion” in losses and write-downs, according to the mRNA specialist. The company said demand "has declined since the pandemic and is insufficient to support the viability of the factory planned in Kenya." 

Now, Moderna must "reassess the most effective way to ensure equitable access in the short term to our COVID-19 and late-stage respiratory pipeline products in Africa," Moderna's chief legal officer Shannon Thyme Klinger said in an emailed statement. 

The plant was meant to produce up to 500 million injectable doses annually, plus the flexibility to add fill-finish and packaging lines down the line. 

But building a facility "that will go unused, when we have more than enough regionally distributed manufacturing capacity to ensure vaccine supply to Africa, would not contribute positively to the public health agenda, which continues to be our priority," Klinger added.

At the time of the plant announcement, CEO Stéphane Bancel noted that the facility wouldn’t have much of an impact on the COVID-19 pandemic as it would've taken between two to four years to complete.

Now, the company will instead work to “better align its infrastructure investments with the evolving healthcare needs and vaccine demand in Africa," it said in a statement.

Moderna pointed to its early-stage efforts in other vaccines for diseases such as HIV and malaria, and noted that it “looks forward to a continuing dialog” about future options to support the “Kenyan healthcare ecosystem.” 

The company's "longer-term goal" remains supplying vaccines for Africa from an "on-continent facility," Klinger added. 

Moderna's 2021 commitment was the start of a greater push to boost vaccine manufacturing in Africa. Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) opened the doors to an mRNA hub in Cape Town, South Africa.

That site is run by South African biotech Afrigen Biologics, which makes its own version of Moderna’s Spikevax using a publicly available viral sequence.

BioNTech similarly had a plan to bring large-scale manufacturing of its Pfizer-partnered jab to the continent using unique modular factories housed in shipping containers. But in September, Bloomberg reported that it was also revising its plans. 

After breaking ground on a facility in Rwanda, the company abandoned its original plans for South African manufacturing plant, Bloomberg reported last year. At the time, the plans hadn't moved forward in six months, people familiar with the matter told the news service.