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

Bypassing patent protections on coronavirus vaccines was one proposal floated in recent months to boost supplies in poor countries. But it’s not a short-term solution and, as some analysts suggest, it may not even be a feasible one.

For now, the quickest and most-efficient way to supply lesser developed nations with vaccines is to leave it to the companies currently producing them and their regional partners, experts have argued.

One such partnership came together on Wednesday, when Pfizer and BioNTech revealed that they will manufacture their co-developed vaccine in South Africa with help from local producer Biovac.

Africa becomes the third continent in the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine manufacturing network which includes more than 20 facilities in North America and Europe.

Under the deal, the partners will incorporate Biovac’s Cape Town facility into their supply chain by the end of this year. After receiving drug substance from facilities in Europe, the site will handle fill-finish duties and distribute more than 100 million doses to the African Union annually.

Pfizer and BioNTech aren’t the first pharma giants to make a push into Africa. In March, Johnson & Johnson revealed an agreement with its manufacturing partner in South Africa, Aspen Pharmacare, to produce its vaccine from a facility in Port Elizabeth. The deal would help J&J supply up to 400 million doses of its single-shot vaccine to the African Union’s 55 member states through 2022. 

RELATED: Johnson & Johnson pledges 400M single-dose COVID-19 vaccines to African Union

Only 1.5% of Africa’s 1.3 billion people have been fully vaccinated, the World Health Organization says. 

While organizations such as the WHO and Doctors Without Borders have urged for the lifting of patent protections on vaccines, many industry experts believe the initiative wouldn’t have an effect, and could hurt global vaccine supplies.

Thomas Hess, principal at Avalare Health, pointed to a time gap to scale up manufacturing capacity, supply raw materials, hire and train employees on new technology platforms and manage import and export challenges. 

RELATED: Will a waiver work? Don’t expect COVID-19 vaccine patents to lift quickly, if ever, analysts say

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said that manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines is complex and requires materials that are in high demand. He said that lifting patent protection would actually cut overall production.

“Allowing other manufacturers to appropriate the intellectual property wouldn’t increase the supply of the starting ingredients,” he wrote. “It will make it harder for the current drugmakers to produce these vaccines.”