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Senegal, Diamniadio: German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visits the site of the future vaccine production facility of Biontech and the Institut Pasteur de Dakar in Diamniadio, Dakar region and is shown around the construction site together with Amadou Hott (M), Minister of Economy from Senegal, by Amadou Sall (r), Head of the Institut Pasteur de Dakar, and Holm Kelle (2nd from left), Vice President for International Partnerships at Biontech. The construction of the factory for vaccines against Covid-19 and other endemic diseases is supported by Germany and the EU, among others.Credit: Bernd von Jutrczenk/ dpa picture alliance/Alamy Stock Photo

At least six countries in Africa will soon start local production of mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 and other conditions as the first technology recipients of the WHO mRNA vaccine hub. Vaccine manufacturer, BioNTech, has also announced plans for scalable vaccine production by developing and delivering mRNA manufacturing facilities made from containers.

According to the company, the establishment of mRNA manufacturing facilities is planned in Senegal, Rwanda and potentially South Africa. The construction of the first facility is expected to start in mid-2022.

At the recent European Union/African Union summit in Brussels, WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, announced that Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia would receive the technology needed to produce mRNA vaccines.

Established in 2021, the global mRNA technology transfer hub is aimed at supporting manufacturers in low- and middle-income countries to produce their own vaccines. It is also geared towards ensuring the countries have all the necessary operating procedures and knowledge to manufacture mRNA vaccines at scale and according to international standards.

Even though it was primarily set up to address the COVID-19 emergency, the hub, WHO said, could also expand manufacturing capacity for other products, putting countries in control of products needed for their health priorities.

Under the initiative, the WHO and its partners will work with the countries to develop a roadmap and put in place training and support to start producing vaccines as soon as possible.

The BioNTainer initiative

BioNTech, has also announced an initiative to provide in-country mRNA vaccine production capacity for African countries through its BioNTainer initiative.

BioNTech described the initiative as a next step to improve vaccine supply in Africa and entails the establishment of scalable vaccine production by developing and delivering mRNA manufacturing facilities. The initiative is being introduced via a partnership involving African leaders, the WHO, Africa CDC, European authorities and governments and other partners.

“Each ‘BioNTainer’ is built of six containers (2.6m x 2.4m x 12m). This allows for mRNA vaccine production in bulk (mRNA manufacturing and formulation), while fill-and-finish will be taken over by local partners. Each BioNTainer is a clean room which BioNTech equips with state-of-the-art manufacturing solutions. Together, two modules require 800 sqm of space and offer an estimated initial capacity of for example up to 50 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine each year,” BioNTech stated.

The BioNTainer will be equipped to manufacture a range of mRNA-based vaccines targeted to the needs of the African Union (AU) member states, such as the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and BioNTech’s investigational malaria and tuberculosis vaccines, if they are successfully developed, approved or authorized by regulatory authorities.

The first mRNA manufacturing facility by BioNTech in Africa is expected to start in mid-2022 while the first BioNTainer should arrive on the continent in the second half of 2022. About 12 months after the delivery of the modules to its final location in Africa, manufacturing in the first BioNTainer is expected to commence.

“Making our own vaccines”

A number of African leaders have welcomed the developments. Cyril Ramaphosa, the president of South Africa, said: “This is very important. It means mutual respect, mutual recognition of what we can all bring to the party, investment in our economies, infrastructure investment and, in many ways, giving back to the continent."

Nana Akufo-Addo, the president of Ghana also described the development as another step in the process towards self-reliance. “We want to achieve self-sufficiency in vaccine production to meet future national, regional and continental needs for health security. Ghana reaffirms her determination to make this Pan-African vaccine project work and succeed,” he said.