South Africa's Biovac produces first Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine doses: report

More than a year after Pfizer and BioNTech brought Biovac into their global vaccine manufacturing network, the South African vaccine producer has made its first batch of the mRNA shot.

Biovac finished its first doses last week at its facility in Cape Town, Bloomberg reports. Before Biovac starts on its next production batch, the first set of shots will be evaluated by the South African Health Regulatory Products Authority, Morena Makhoana, Biovac’s CEO, said in an interview with Bloomberg. Subsequent doses are set to be sold commercially starting next year.

Last July, Pfizer and BioNTech tapped Biovac to help made COVID-19 vaccine doses in Africa. The South African company, which is partly owned by the government, is on an expansion spree and expects to employ as many as 584 people at the end of this year, Bloomberg reports.

Throughout the pandemic, vaccine makers have faced scrutiny for not making more of an effort to supply doses to low- and middle-income countries. Many of the top producers responded by pledging manufacturing investments and inking deals with local partners to bolster supply. 

Last October, Moderna said it would shell out $500 million to build a “state-of-the-art” mRNA facility in Kenya to produce up to 500 million vaccine doses a year. At the time, the company aimed to get the plant operational and ready to fill doses in Africa by 2023.

Johnson & Johnson also made a play for African manufacturing. Last December, the company tapped Aspen Pharmacare to produce and sell its vaccine in Africa. What was a highly touted deal shaped up to be a disappointment come March of this year, when Aspen revealed that it still hadn’t received a single order for its branded version of the J&J vaccine. Moreover, last summer, J&J faced scrutiny upon the discovery that most of the J&J shots bottled and packaged at the Aspen site were going to Europe, not Africa as intended.

As for Pfizer’s Biovac production, the manufacturer is banking on continued demand for Pfizer boosters. The shots will be held in the site’s 130 ultra-cold freezers which are chilled to minus 75 degrees Celsius (or minus 103 Fahrenheit), Bloomberg reports.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization is setting up an mRNA technology hub in Cape Town and is planning for Afrigen Biologics Ltd. to develop a vaccine of its own. The team will then transfer manufacturing know-how to at least 15 production facilities in low- and middle-income countries worldwide. The first technology transfer will go to Biovac, according to Bloomberg.