The widening vaccine inequality across the globe has affected the poorer countries the most, particularly the African countries. In an attempt to bridge the gap, Germany's BioNTech, the developers of the first mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 together with Pfizer, announced it plans to ship mobile vaccine production units to Africa.
"The question was, can we make the process compact enough to fit in a container," the Chief Executive and co-founder of BioNTech, Uğur Şahin, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) as the company unveiled the new labs, dubbed "BioNTainers."
BioNTech said it aims to establish the "first manufacturing facility in the African Union" in "mid-2022" and expects to ship the modular production units to Rwanda and/or Senegal.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his Senegalese counterpart Macky Sall attended the Vaccine Equity for Africa meeting at BioNTech's mRNA production site in Marburg, Germany, along with Ghana's President Nana Akufo-Addo and World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
"The modular system opens up new perspectives for global vaccine equity," Kagame said.
Tedros said that boosting local production was "essential," particularly as more than 100 countries worldwide have failed to attain the vaccination rate of 70% that the WHO had been targeting for the middle of this year.
Africa is the least-vaccinated continent in the world – more than two years after the start of the pandemic and more than a year after the rollout of the first coronavirus vaccines, less than 12% of Africans have been fully vaccinated.
Earlier this month, South African biotech company Biologics announced it had produced the continent's first coronavirus vaccine based on mRNA technology using the genetic code that another mRNA vaccine maker, Moderna, had made publicly available.
Şahin said BioNTech, which developed its vaccine with United States pharma giant Pfizer, has sold tens of millions of the shot and was aiming to "install production sites for our mRNA technology in every continent."
South Africa could "potentially" join the list of recipients of the mobile labs, BioNTech said.
The total 12 units, each comprising two modules – one for the production of mRNA and the other for the vaccine serum – and local partners then takeover the filling of the vials.
The manufacturing process involves some 50,000 steps and each has to be followed meticulously.
But the containers overcome this challenge by having "the process pre-validated" before they are installed, Şahin explained.
Normally, it takes around three years to build a new factory. However, using the mobile units, the first doses will be ready after 12 months, Şahin said.
The containers could also be used to produce vaccines that fight malaria based on mRNA technology. However, authorization will come after clinical trials begin this year.
BioNTech employees will operate the containers, to begin with, while training local employees "to hand over the site in the mid or long-term," according to the statement.
The vaccine technology will be shared without protection patents waiver, as requested by a number of countries and nongovernmental organization (NGO).
"Patents aren't the key. When we install the technology and hand it over to a partner, they will also get the license to operate it," Şahin said, adding that BioNTech would assure the "responsible use."