Covid-19 vaccine makers BioNTech and Pfizer on Wednesday said they had found a South African partner to produce their jab on the African continent for the first time.
The move comes amid growing criticism of vaccine inequality that has seen poor countries fall behind richer ones in the race to protect people from the coronavirus.
Under the agreement, Cape Town-based Biovac will complete the last step in the manufacturing process of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, known as “fill and finish”, the companies said in a statement.
The project will take time to get off the ground however, with the first African-finished Pfizer vaccines not expected before 2022.
Once up and running, Biovac is set to churn out more than 100 million doses annually that will be distributed to the 55 countries in the African Union.
“This is a critical step forward in strengthening sustainable access to a vaccine in the fight against this tragic, worldwide pandemic,” said Biovac chief executive officer Morena Makhoana.
The “technical transfer, on-site development and equipment installation activities will begin immediately,” the statement added.
The coronavirus vaccine developed by Germany’s BioNTech and its US partner Pfizer, based on experimental mRNA technology, was the first to be approved in the West late last year.
Studies have shown it is highly effective against Covid-19, including against newer variants.
Another plant in South Africa is already handling the fill and finish process for the Covid-19 shot developed by pharmaceutical firm Johnson & Johnson, which uses a traditional viral vector-based method.
– Debate over patents –
With vaccine rollouts well under way in the West, and supply even outstripping demand in some countries, calls have grown for pharma companies to waive patents on their life-saving jabs.
This has been fiercely opposed by the companies themselves and countries like Germany, whose Chancellor Angela Merkel says suspending intellectual property rights could stifle innovation and would not resolve the lack of manufacturing capacity in the short term.
She has instead argued for licensing agreements and partnerships between vaccine makers and local firms, an approach taken by BioNTech and Pfizer.
“We aim to enable people on all continents to manufacture and distribute our vaccine while ensuring the quality of the manufacturing process and the doses,” said Ugur Sahin, BioNTech’s co-founder and CEO.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, according to prepared remarks at a World Trade Organization summit, said weakening intellectual property “will only discourage the type of unprecedented innovation which brought vaccines forward in record time and make it harder for companies to collaborate going forward”.
Pfizer/BioNTech said they have so far shipped more than one billion Covid-19 vaccine doses to more than 100 countries or territories, including through the global Covax vaccine-sharing programme.
The Covax scheme, backed by the World Health Organization and heavily relied on by African countries, has so far delivered far fewer doses than expected, however.
– ‘They never come’ –
The WHO estimated earlier this month that only two percent of the African population, around 16 million people, were fully vaccinated.
South Africa has the highest number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in Africa, recording more than 2.3 million infections and over 67,000 deaths.
The country is currently battling a brutal third wave of the pandemic, fuelled by a lack of vaccines, public fatigue with Covid restrictions and the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa last month announced a plan to turn his country into an mRNA vaccine hub, saying Africans “cannot continue to rely on vaccines that are made outside of Africa because they never come”.