Pfizer and BioNTech will begin manufacturing their Covid-19 vaccine in South Africa, as part of an effort to accelerate the rollout of the jab on a continent battling another wave of infections.
The US pharma group and German biotech, who together created the first mRNA-based Covid vaccine to win regulatory approval, said on Wednesday that they would work with the Biovac Institute in Cape Town.
The collaboration with Biovac will enable its facility in Cape Town to complete the final stages of production, known as “fill and finish”, while still importing the vaccine material from Europe.
Under the plan, the manufacture of finished doses will start in 2022 and aim for annual production of more than 100m.
The announcement comes a month after BioNTech’s founder and chief executive Ugur Sahin outlined plans to establish production facilities in Africa that will ultimately help tackle other diseases.
Pfizer is among the drugmakers to have come under fire for resisting a move to waive international intellectual property rights on Covid vaccines, a step advocates argue will ensure the world’s population is inoculated more quickly.
Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s chief executive, on Wednesday urged the World Trade Organization to help bring down trade barriers and preserve intellectual property rights, arguing they had been key to the speedy creation of several Covid vaccines.
Addressing WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at a summit, Bourla said the agreement with Biovac proved “our commitment to fair and equitable access to the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine to everyone, everywhere.”
“To Dr Ngozi and others who have expressed concern that Africa is being left behind in part due to lack of vaccine manufacturing, I want to say that we hear you,” he said.
Pfizer and BioNTech will begin the technical transfer, equipment installation and development of the Biovac facility immediately.
Sahin said the plan reflected BioNTech’s ambitions to pursue mRNA technology in Africa.
“This is why we will continue to evaluate sustainable approaches that will support the development and production of mRNA vaccines on the African continent,” he said in a statement.
BioNTech and Pfizer have shipped more than 1bn jabs around the world, and aim to produce 3bn doses this year.
Morena Makhoana, chief executive of Biovac, welcomed the new plan as a “critical step” toward improving vaccine access around the world.
“We believe this collaboration will create opportunity to more broadly distribute vaccine doses to people in harder-to-reach communities, especially those on the African continent.”
Additional reporting by Hannah Kuchler in London