RWANDA – The German pharmaceutical company BioNTech has broken ground for the production site of its COVID-19 vaccine in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.

According to BioNTech, the facility, dubbed the African modular mRNA manufacturing facility, has a target for the first set of manufacturing tools to be delivered to the site by the end of this year.

The groundbreaking ceremony was attended by Rwandan President Paul Kagame and other African heads of state, as well as representatives from the European Union and the World Health Organization.

Speaking at the ceremony, Kagame called the breaking of ground a “milestone towards vaccine equity.”

Across the continent, only 17% of Africa’s 1.3 billion people are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, compared with over 70% of the population in the European Union.

First mRNA plant in Africa

When the Rwanda facility is up and running, it will be the first mRNA vaccine plant in Africa. The BioNTech-Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is based on relatively new technology using messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA).

Pfizer/BioNTech’s comirnaty vaccine, along with a vaccine from the US-based company Moderna, were among the first to use mRNA technology widely and successfully.

Initially, the 30,000-square-meter (323,000-square-foot) plant in Kigali will contain two modular vaccine production containers and have an estimated annual capacity of about 50 million vaccine doses, according to a BioNTech press release.

Basing the plant on the modular containers will enable the company to scale production as needed, according to BioNTech.

It’s expected that the first set of containers will arrive in Rwanda in late 2022, with vaccine production starting 12 to 18 months after that.

Aspen in South Africa already commercially produces COVID-19 vaccines, but these use a more traditional virus-based technology, not mRNA technology.

However, BioNTech is not the only company looking to make a push in the African continent. In 2021, Moderna signed an agreement to invest US$500 million in an mRNA manufacturing site that could make up to 500 million doses a year. 

Also, the Moroccan government dropped US$500 million into a new Recipharm fill-finish plant, and Grifols is building an IV bag plant in Nigeria, but those projects aren’t set to be up and running until 2023 and 2024, respectively.

Wider network planned

The company is expected to establish additional factories in Senegal and South Africa in close coordination with its partners in the respective countries in the next few years.

However, the initial site in Rwanda will become a node in a decentralized African end-to-end manufacturing network.

All vaccines that will be manufactured in these nations will be dedicated to people residing in member states of the African Union, according to the company.

The modular production containers could also eventually be used to make mRNA vaccines against malaria or tuberculosis, BioNTech’s CEO and co-founder, Ugur Sahin, said at the ceremony in Kigali.

This would depend, Sahin said, on how these products were developed and what future public-health priorities are.

BioNTech’s malaria vaccine candidates, which are based on its mRNA platform, are expected to enter human trials in 2022, according to a company press release.

Vaccine inequities

The BioNTech plant is part of the European Union’s Vaccine Equity for Africa project, which was officially launched in February.

This project represents the immense potential of African and European cooperation,” European Commission President von der Leyen said.

“Our partnership will bring vaccine manufacturing in Africa to the next level.”

The project push comes as doses of COVID-19 vaccines finally arrive in force on the continent after a much-criticized delay.

Low COVID-19 vaccine uptake

Many African nations have a low uptake of COVID-19 vaccines, and only three look like they will meet the World Health Organization’s target of 70% coverage with COVID-19 vaccines in all countries by the end of June.

So far, only Mauritius and the Seychelles have vaccinated 70% of their populations. Rwanda is projected to achieve this target by the end of June.

Across the continent, only 17% of Africa’s 1.3 billion people are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, compared with over 70% of the population in the European Union — in part because richer nations hoarded supply in 2021, when global demand was greatest, to the chagrin of African nations.

Uptake in Africa has also fallen short of expectations because of factors such as logistical hurdles, misinformation and a lack of urgency in populations.

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