BioNTech is preparing to expand into Africa together with the European Union

BioNTech plans to rush into Africa, with the goal of setting up mRNA vaccine production facilities on the continent as part of a long-term effort to tackle diseases outside of Covid-19.

Germany’s biotech plans come as the European Union moves to boost vaccine manufacturing capacity in Africa, which imports more than 99 percent of the hits it uses.

Ugur Sahin, co-founder and CEO of BioNTech, outlined the efforts in a joint video call with Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, ahead of the G7 Summit in Cornwall.

“Technologically speaking, there is no reason for that [vaccine production in Africa] Shaheen told the Financial Times. “And because there’s no reason anymore, we have to make it possible.”

Von der Leyen said the EU wanted to help promote a “strong initiative to invest in mRNA, with our African partners,” adding that it was important that the technology be brought to the continent. “We join forces in such a way that everyone brings in the best talent they have.”

The pharmaceutical industry has long neglected Africa and many diseases affecting the population, such as malaria, in favor of research into more profitable medicines.

Rich nations and companies are now under intense pressure to increase the availability of Covid-19 vaccines on the continent. Just 39 m punches It has been given in Africa so far – just over 2 percent of global vaccines.

Last month, the European Union and the pharmaceutical industry erred when the Biden administration called for the outright waiver of patents to expand global access to vaccines and save lives. Brussels responded that the focus should instead be on removing export restrictions, expanding production, and using existing intellectual property rules to allow necessary patents to be licensed.

Washington will also announce new commitments for low-income countries ahead of the G7 summit, with plans to purchase 500 million doses of BioNTech/Pfizer supplements at cost and donate them to the Covax Program, which is backed by the World Health Organization.

A medical worker injects the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine in Siaya, Kenya, where vaccines are delivered to people who live far from health facilities. It will take time to develop manufacturing on the continent, says Ugur Sahin © Brian Ongoro/AFP/Getty

But developing vaccine manufacturing in Africa will take time. Shaheen said he aims for BioNTech to find and train a partner in Africa to “fill and finish” vaccine doses in about 12 months, which will enable the continent to import vaccines in bulk.

Establishing the capability for the more technical early stages of manufacturing, when mRNA is produced and then combined with lipid nanoparticles, will likely take about four years, he said.

Advocates of mRNA argue that the new technology, which has only made its first major breakthrough with the development of coronavirus vaccines, could be a very useful tool for fighting diseases in developing countries. Facilities that produce mRNA in a matter of weeks can be modified to make different vaccines, and they can usually produce larger quantities in much smaller facilities.

BioNTech has revised production targets for the Covid-19 vaccine, which was developed with US drugmaker Pfizer, to 3 billion from 2.5 billion for 2021, but the majority will be sent to high- and middle-income countries. About 1 billion of these doses are expected to be sold at cost to low-income countries.

The mRNA vaccine for tuberculosis, developed by German biotechnology with support from the Gates Foundation, is likely to be one of the first potential candidates for African production. Currently, BioNTech aims to begin clinical trials of the treatment within a year, Shaheen said. “HIV is a tough beast,” he added. “So this is finally coming to vaccine development.”

Employees test procedures for manufacturing messenger RNA (mRNA) for a Covid-19 vaccine at BioNTech in Marburg, Germany
Employees test procedures for manufacturing messenger RNA (mRNA) for a Covid-19 vaccine at BioNTech in Marburg, Germany © Thomas Lohnes/AFP/Getty

Shaheen said all future BioNTech facilities in Africa will produce treatments at not-for-profit rates for middle- and low-income countries.

Von der Leyen, which last month announced a plan to invest 1 billion euros in vaccine production in Africa, said she believed the African Union’s goal of producing 60 per cent of vaccine consumption on the continent by 2040 was feasible and realistic. The EU plans to invest in strengthening the regulatory framework in Africa, help strengthen local skills and universities, and build on the existing network of clinical trials targeting infectious diseases.

“We need to join forces here,” she said, adding that the EU was in discussions with countries including Senegal, South Africa, Rwanda and Ghana. She added that support from institutions such as the European Investment Bank would help stimulate investment as the EU bears some risks.

At the G7 summit where leaders will discuss ways to expand the availability of Covid-19 vaccines, Von der Leyen is likely to invite more countries to increase their exports to other parts of the world. By the end of the week, she said, the European Union will have produced 700 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, about 350 million of which have been exported.

“We would be really happy if other vaccine producers followed our example, because it would be a completely different situation where it comes to equitable distribution of vaccines.

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