Pfizer and BioNTech’s announcement of a partnership with a South African pharmaceutical to handle manufacturing for their Covid-19 vaccine for distribution in Africa marks a notable development in the continent’s quest to develop its vaccine manufacturing ability.
As part of Pfizer and BioNTech’s global Covid-19 vaccine supply chain and manufacturing network in three continents, it was announced on July 21 that the Biovac Institute will manufacture and distribute the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine. They expect Biovac Institute to be integrated into the supply chain by the end of this year. The institute will get drug material from Europe and will start manufacturing finished doses next year, with annual production of more than 100 million doses at full capacity.
The Biovac Institute will join a handful of facilities that are working on Covid-19 vaccines in Africa. The Egyptian Holding Company for Biological Products and Vaccines, or VACSERA, is manufacturing the Sinovac vaccine. And South Africa’s Aspen Pharmacare is making the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
But the African companies are only handling final stages of the process putting the vaccine into vials and packaging it—what is commonly known as “fill and finish”—and shipping it. Public health activists have criticized the lack of knowledge transfer to local manufacturers to increase production.
“We are pleased to see that Johnson and Johnson, and Pfizer, have made commitments to ship from Africa. We however want to make it clear that we prefer that they license producers in Africa, rather than to produce under contract,” Zimbabwean businessman Strive Masiyiwa, the African Union’s special envoy for the fight against Covid-19, said in a press briefing on July 22.
Covid-19 vaccine distribution in Africa has faced several challenges
The news comes as African countries struggle to vaccinate their populations amid vaccine inequity against poorer countries. With a population of 1.3 billion, the continent has only been able to secure 82.8 million vaccine doses and only 1.4% of people on the continent are fully vaccinated. In Africa, where some countries are experiencing their third wave of the pandemic, there have been 6 million cases and about 160,000 deaths from the virus.
Covax, a global initiative by the World Health Initiative and other organizations aimed at delivering Covid-19 vaccines to developing countries, has largely underperformed, delivering only a small fraction the 2 billion doses it was supposed to deliver by the end of this year.
Only five African countries have vaccine production facilities, according to the World Health Organization: Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa, and Tunisia. But most of the local companies do packaging and labeling, the body says. This may continue to change though, as the African Union has partnered with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which runs Covax, to build five research centers over the next 15 years that will manufacture vaccines locally.
While African scientists have made efforts to make local vaccines, they have failed to get support from the private and public sectors.
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