Pfizer partner Biovac warns of production slump amid low COVID vaccine demand: report

Following similar proclamations from the Serum Institute of India (SII) and Aspen Pharmacare, Pfizer-partnered Biovac is the latest pandemic vaccine manufacturer to forecast possible production shortfalls amid a slump in global demand.

Pfizer and BioNTech linked up with The Biovac Institute in July, enlisting the drugmaker to help manufacture their mRNA-based vaccine Comirnaty in South Africa. Under the partnership, Biovac’s Cape Town plant is set to handle fill-finish duties and chip in 100 million finished doses for the African Union each year, Pfizer has said.

But demand for COVID-19 vaccines is dropping worldwide, even in Africa, where vaccination rates are lowest, Bloomberg reports.

“As a manufacturer we are concerned about the picture that’s coming through,” Morena Makhoana, Biovac’s CEO, told the news outlet in an interview.

“At the rate things are going it will probably be less” than 100 million doses annually, the CEO said.

A manufacturing reduction wouldn’t be totally unprecedented. Back in April, AstraZeneca’s Indian production partner SII said it had stopped making new COVID-19 vaccine doses in December. The company was said to be sitting on stockpile of 200 million doses.

About a week later, Reuters published an interview with Stavros Nicolaou, senior director of Johnson & Johnson’s South African manufacturing partner Aspen, who claimed the company hadn’t received any orders of late for its branded version of the shot, dubbed Aspenovax.

“If we don’t get any kind of vaccine orders, then clearly there’ll be very little rationale for retaining the lines that we’re currently using for production,” he told Reuters, referring to Aspen’s COVID-19 vaccine plant in Gqeberha, South Africa.

Pfizer, for its part, acknowledges that supply alone is not stopping global vaccination efforts.

“It is becoming increasingly recognized that vaccine supply is no longer the primary challenge impacting vaccinating [low- and middle-income countries] and thus manufacturing more doses of COVID-19 vaccines is not the only solution to this complex problem,” a Pfizer spokesperson told Fierce Pharma via email.

“Country readiness is critical in ensuring that a nation is able to effectively receive, transport and administer the vaccine doses as they arrive,” the spokesperson continued. "We know that it is not just vaccines that will bring an end to this pandemic, but vaccinations.”

As of May 1, Pfizer had delivered more than 1.4 billion vaccine doses to 110 low- and middle-income countries, including 44 countries in Africa, the spokesperson said.

She added that Pfizer has “nothing new to share” regarding its Biovac partnership. Tech transfer, on-site development and equipment installation kicked off last year, and Biovac’s site was incorporated into Pfizer’s supply chain at the end of 2021, she explained. Pfizer and BioNTech expect the company’s Cape Town facility to start manufacturing finished doses in the second half of 2022, she said.

The demand downturn comes after Biovac has invested some 300 million rand ($19 million) to gear up for mRNA vaccine production, including the installation of equipment needed to store Pfizer-BioNTech’s mRNA shot at ultra-cold temperatures, Bloomberg pointed out.

“Certainly for Biovac it’s a big project,” CEO Makhoana told the news service. “Volume wise it’s a step change.”

As it stands, Biovac is chipping in on about 4 million doses annually of a Sanofi pediatric vaccine in South Africa, plus 3 million doses a year of Pfizer’s Prevnar 13 pneumococcal shot, the publication added.

Biovac’s helmsman remains hopeful African demand for Pfizer’s COVID shot will increase and potentially surpass that for rival vaccines like J&J’s, especially as Pfizer pursues authorization in kids as young as 5, Bloomberg added.

Elsewhere on the continent, BioNTech is planning to boost African vaccine manufacturing with modular factories housed in shipping containers, which the German mRNA specialist calls BioNTainers.

The pod plants are kitted out to make Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine from start to finish, save for the last fill-finish step, BioNTech said earlier this year. The company expects to set up its BioNTainers in Senegal, Rwanda and potentially South Africa, with plans to start setting up the first modular factory in the middle of the year. BioNTainer manufacturing is poised to kick off roughly 12 months after the delivery of the module to its first location in Africa, BioNTech said in February.