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BioNTech weighs making Covid shots in Africa to expand reach

BioNTech SE is discussing the possibility of Covid-19 vaccine production sites in Africa to expand the company’s supply network in regions around the world, chief executive officer Ugur Sahin said.

“I can imagine a production network in South America and for Africa,” Sahin said at a briefing with members of Germany’s foreign press association. “We are also talking about African production sites.”

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Though BioNTech and its US partner Pfizer have committed to make 2.5 billion doses of their two-shot vaccine this year, the vast majority are tied up in lucrative contracts with the world’s wealthiest countries. Africa trails the rest of the world in accessing the shots it needs to immunize its more than 1 billion residents. Globally, countries with the highest incomes are getting vaccinated about 25 times faster than those with the lowest, Bloomberg’s Vaccine Tracker shows.

Sahin said he had met with representatives from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, earlier on Wednesday about how to make more shots available in low-income countries.

Giving up patent rights on the vaccine isn’t the solution, the CEO said, adding that BioNTech wants to avoid a proliferation of versions of its shot. One possibility instead would be a special license for competent manufacturers, though he said such production wouldn’t be able to help with supply until the end of next year.

African capacity

“We don’t want to see a qualitatively inferior vaccine in Africa,” Sahin said. “Everything has to be certified. This is why we’re talking to organisations about giving a license for certified producers.”

African epidemiologists and some politicians have said the continent needs to develop its own vaccine manufacturing. Currently, the ability to make vaccines of any kind — and largely just packaging the shots rather than producing them — is confined to South Africa, Senegal and Egypt on the continent.

South Africa’s Aspen Pharmacare Holdings has agreed to manufacture as many as 300 million Johnson & Johnson Covid shots annually at a plant it owns in the country. The country’s partly state-owned Biovac Institute plans to build an active pharmaceutical ingredients plant at a cost of as much as 200 million euros ($241 million) to make Covid shots in a partnership with ImmunityBio Inc.

“The greatest lesson that vaccine nationalism has taught us is the critical urgency for Africa to develop, manufacture and distribute its own biotechnology,” South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said in an April 7 speech.

There is a business case for having vaccines made in Africa and it’s also key to make sure the virus is defeated globally, Mkhize said on Wednesday while speaking on a panel.

“This should be understood as an act of investment not one of charity,” he said. “Our inability to diversify the manufacturing of vaccines is going to make the continent very vulnerable as everyone will concentrate on their own variants and this means the pandemic will restart.”

© 2021 Bloomberg

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