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‘They want to see production happening’

When Pfizer (PFE) announced a COVID-19 vaccine partnership last week with Cape Town, South Africa’s Biovac institute, it did so out of concern rather than need.

Even as the U.S. — awash in vaccine supply — pleads with its citizens to get the shot, developing nations have been throttled by spiking coronavirus cases and scant vaccine supply. Pfizer’s move sets the stage for a ramp up of production in crisis-hit South Africa, the genesis of the virus’ Beta variant, and fills a void that many have criticized in the global COVID-19 response. 

It is a criticism that Pfizer CEO, Albert Bourla says he heeded.

“The reason why we did it is not because it would increase the production of our vaccine. We did it because we understand the sensitivities of the African continent, that they want to also see part of the production happening,” Bourla told Yahoo Finance Wednesday.

The partnership makes Biovac the first on the continent to produce an mRNA vaccine, and the second to produce a COVID-19 vaccine, joining Johnson & Johnson’s (JNJ) partner Aspen Pharmacare — also located in South Africa.

Pfizer announced it ahead of an address before a joint session of the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization about intellectual property waivers for vaccines. The company believes waiving IP is not beneficial to global access.

Both Bourla and Moderna (MRNA) CEO Stéphane Bancel previously told Yahoo Finance that it would, instead, eat up current resources — and that raw materials, rather than the production timelines, were the real issues.

Yet Bourla said the move to include a South Africa fill and finish plant — which the company had already had a relationship with since 2015— was not because it couldn’t sufficiently supply doses from its existing U.S. and European sites.

In fact, the tight control Pfizer has kept on the manufacturing is what the CEO credited with its worldwide surge in vaccine orders.

“As you know, there are other companies, I don’t want to name, they have chosen different approaches and have (shifted) their manufacturing somewhere else,” Bourla said. “They do technical transfers. They didn’t take the pain to display their current manufacturing…in house.”

Yet the company announced the new strategy just this month, as the Delta variant entrenched itself globally. Meanwhile, the 100 million promised doses are unlikely to be ready until early 2022.

Still, Bourla insisted that he didn’t “see the need to have done something like that before. Actually, we would have invested resources, that were very busy, into doing what we are doing right now.”

It’s why the company has been able to achieve greater efficiency, cutting down production time from 110 days to 60 days.

“What we did was the right thing, and what we did, it is what secured us many doses for the world,” Bourla said.

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