mRNA Vaccine Manufacturing Comes to Africa
Pictured: The first BioNTainer arrives in Rwanda/BioNTech
German biotech company BioNTech has said it will start manufacturing vaccines in Africa within 18 months after completing a manufacturing facility in Rwanda, a milestone the company stated it expects to reach by the end of this year. The company is also planning to set up plants in two other African countries, South Africa and Senegal, as part of what it describes as an effort to democratize access to novel medicines around the globe.
“Core to BioNTech’s business practices is to improve the health of people worldwide,” a company spokesperson told BioSpace in an email.
To launch its manufacturing presence in Africa, BioNTech introduced its BioNTainer, a flexible container solution delivering turnkey mRNA manufacturing facilities for scalable mRNA vaccine production. “The BioNTainer was developed to help ensure sustainable, equitable access to mRNA-based medicines in countries and regions where they are needed,” the company spokesperson said. “The BioNTainers are technically equipped to manufacture various mRNA-based vaccines,” including the company’s COVID-19 shot and vaccines against malaria and tuberculosis that are currently in early-stage clinical development.
Charles Maponga, a professor at the University of Zimbabwe and director of the International Pharmacotherapy Education and Research Initiative, said that scientists have long pushed for local production of vaccines, but it wasn’t until COVID-19 gripped the world that biopharma companies began to more seriously consider this approach.
“COVID-19 gave us a rude awakening,” Maponga told BioSpace. Borders were closed, he noted, and international assistance was hard to come by. “Sometimes we cooperate in good times but in a crisis, people tend to look at their interests first.”
Maponga noted that there are advantages to making vaccines in Africa specifically. For example, such vaccines may work better for local populations compared to imported ones due to differences in genetic makeup, he told BioSpace, and with 1.3 billion people on the African continent, there is a ready market. By manufacturing vaccines in three different African countries, BioNTech will establish economies of scale, he said.
Networking with the African Community
The Rwandan facility, which will be about 30,000 square meters, will initially host two BioNTainers, one drug substance and one drug formulation module, the BioNTech spokesperson confirmed. To run the facility, the company is committed to hiring employees locally and within the African Union, working closely with partners at local and international levels as well as experts from research and academia. Currently, the company’s staff in Rwanda hails from seven African countries.
One partner the company is working with is the African Biomanufacturing Institute (ABI), launched in June 2022 to train the local Rwandan workforce. “The institute’s purpose is to meet the growing demand for highly skilled individuals and attract local talent in STEM . . . areas as well as those without exposure to academia in Rwanda and the African Union as a whole,” the BioNTech spokesperson told BioSpace.
San Bilal, an associate director of Sustainable Economies and Climate Action at the think tank Centre for Africa-Europe Relations, told BioSpace that diversifying sources of vaccine manufacturing and moving toward strategic autonomy is critical for Africa’s industrialization and the strengthening of its health sector. While importing medicines and vaccines will remain critical for Africa, he said, it also limits the scope of the continent’s development of production capacity and technology transfer, which are important both for strengthening its health systems and economic development.
“Facilitating access to finance and investment for both African and international actors, ensuring an open African market, developing effective manufacturing and distribution logistics and harmonizing regulatory settings across African countries will be key to the African production of medical products,” Bilal said. “It should also be accompanied by more comprehensive policies to strengthen Africa’s health systems.”