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Rebecca Lumley
10 Jun 2022

BioNTech to start work on first African mRNA vaccine factory this month

The Rwanda site will be the first piece of the company’s African manufacturing network  

BioNTech has said the construction of a factory to produce mRNA COVID-19 vaccines will begin on June 23 in Rwanda, marking the first step in the company’s plans to build an African manufacturing network.

The German biotech said in a statement on Thursday that the facility’s ground-breaking ceremony in Kigali will be attended by Rwandan President Paul Kagame, other heads of African states, as well as representatives from the European Union and the World Health Organization.  

BioNTech’s Comirnaty-branded vaccine was developed with US partner Pfizer and is now the most widely used in the world. The company plans to establish scalable vaccine production on the continent by developing and delivering turnkey mRNA manufacturing facilities based on a container solution dubbed ‘BioNTainer’. It plans to deliver its BioNTainer modules to the Rwanda site by the end of 2022 and also expects deliveries to Senegal and potentially South Africa.  

The manufacturing solution consists of one drug substance and one formulation module, each called a BioNTainer. Each module is built of six ISO sized containers, allowing for mRNA vaccine production in bulk (mRNA manufacturing and formulation). Fill-and-finish will be taken over by local partners.  

The company says each BioNTainer offers an estimated initial capacity of up to 50 million doses per year. It also notes that BioNTainers could make other mRNA vaccines against malaria or tuberculosis, depending on product development progress and future public-health priorities. 

The project comes as Western-made coronavirus vaccine doses become more widely available in Africa, with South Africa’s Aspen Pharmacare striking a deal to manufacture Johnson & Johnson's vaccine earlier this year. Africa has also received a significant number of COVAX doses, with the continent representing 45% of the alliance’s total donations (now more than 500 million).  

There has been a push for investment in African manufacturing capacity as donations continue to be ad-hoc in nature and doses generally have short shelf lives. This makes it difficult to plan vaccination campaigns and achieve a higher rate of coverage.  

However, misinformation around vaccine safety and a lack of urgency as the pandemic progresses have also impacted Africa’s vaccine rollout. According to the African CDC, just 17.3% of the population is fully vaccinated and only 71% of available doses have been utilised.  

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