COVID-19 vaccine makers BioNTech and Pfizer on Wednesday said they had found a South African partner to produce their jab locally, the first such deal on the African continent.
Under the agreement, Cape Town-based Biovac, a public-private partnership focused on vaccine production will receive COVID-19 vaccine drug substance made in plants in Europe and begin to complete the last step in the manufacturing process of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, known as “fill and finish”.
Technical transfer, on-site development and equipment installation activities will begin immediately, the companies said.
The project will take time to get off the ground, however, with the first African-finished vaccines not expected before 2022.
Once up and running, Biovac is set to churn out more than 100 million doses annually that will be distributed to the 55 countries in the African Union.
“This is a critical step forward in strengthening sustainable access to a vaccine in the fight against this tragic, worldwide pandemic,” said Biovac chief executive officer, Morena Makhoana.
Pfizer announced the partnership ahead of a speech by Chief Executive Albert Bourla at a World Trade Organization (WTO) Summit.
WTO members have been in talks for months on waiving drug firms’ intellectual property (IP) rights for COVID-19 vaccines. Most developing countries support the waiver but several wealthy countries remain strongly opposed, saying it will deter research that allowed COVID-19 vaccines to be produced so quickly.
In his prepared remarks, Bourla made a plea for the group to maintain the current IP rules.
“Weakening IP rules will only discourage the type of unprecedented innovation which brought vaccines forward in record time and make it harder for companies to collaborate going forward,” Bourla said.
Last month, the World Health Organization said it was setting up a hub, or training facility, in South Africa to give companies there the know-how and licenses to produce COVID-19 vaccines. Biovac was one of the initial participants in the hub.
Biovac has partnered with Pfizer since 2015 to manufacture and distribute its Prevenar 13 pneumonia vaccine.
The coronavirus vaccine developed by BioNTech and its US partner Pfizer, based on mRNA technology, was the first to be approved in the West late last year.
Studies have shown it is highly effective against COVID-19, including against newer and more contagious virus variants.
(With input from wires)