Post-pandemic mRNA activity in Africa

The COVID-19 pandemic validated the concept of messenger RNA (mRNA) while highlighting the need for locally produced vaccines and therapeutics to ensure national health security.

Millie Nelson, Editor

March 21, 2024

3 Min Read

The pandemic highlighted the reality that countries cannot rely on market sources to supply pandemic security. Since then, various geographies have bolstered their manufacturing capabilities, forged partnerships, and created initiatives to prepare for future pandemics and routine vaccinations.

According to a White Paper published by Gavi in June 2022 entitled “A New Era of Vaccine Manufacturing in Africa,” one of the many issues “exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic is the urgent need to further diversify global vaccine manufacturing, particularly with regards to Africa.”

While organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and Medicines Patent Pool (MPP) introduced strategies as a response to the inequality in access to healthcare highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, like the mRNA technology platform in 2021, which aims to increase security in lower- and middle-income countries (LMIC), the need for continued investment in such areas has remained an important topic.

The WHO said Africa has “fewer than ten vaccine manufacturing facilities, of which only one produces a vaccine prequalified by WHO […] this leaves African nations inherently reliant upon imports of vaccines from other regions.”

In December 2023, Gavi launched the African Vaccine Manufacturing Accelerator (AVMA) program focused on growing Africa’s manufacturing base with up to $1 billion in contributions. AVMA is designed to provide incentives for ten years and support, at a minimum, four African vaccine manufacturers to operate sustainably and at scale to win Gavi/UNICEF tenders to produce over 800 million vaccine doses.

Most recently, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced a total of $40 million in funding to improve access to Quantoom Biosciences’ messenger RNA (mRNA) research and manufacturing platform. The technology is said to be at a lower cost than traditional methods and $20 million of the funding total will go towards the firm and its platform development.

Furthermore, Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer, who have been named as the pioneers of mRNA since the release of their successful and respective COVID-19 vaccines, have also made investments in the continent.

In October 2021, Moderna announced a $500 million investment to build its first biomanufacturing facility outside of North America. The exact location in Africa remained under wraps until October 2022 when the firm entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Government of the Republic of Kenya to establish Kenya as the location for its mRNA plant.

The White Paper stated the importance of building “facilities that are capable of reliably producing high-quality vaccines that comply with globally recognized standards, such as Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) as well as Good Clinical Practice and Good Clinical Laboratory Practice.”

Bio[I]Ntech or Bio[Out]Tech?

In the same month Moderna announced its plans in Africa, BioNtech signed a MoU with the Rwandan government and Institut Pasteur de Dakar in Senegal to start building an mRNA plant that summer.

A few months later, BioNTech broke ground on a modular scalable mRNA plant in Kigali, Rwanda and said it expected to set up more factories in Senegal and South Africa. The plug-in modular mRNA manufacturing technology, called BioNTainer, was announced in February 2021.  

The CEO of BioNTech Ugur Sahin told delegates at JP Morgan’s Conference in January that BioNTainers differ from traditional manufacturing facility scale-out as they do not require “many years and huge investment” to become operational.

However, in September, Bloomberg cited people close to the project and wrote BioNTech is scaling back its manufacturing plans in Africa with a plant in South Africa being dropped and a facility in Senegal now set to be a smaller-scale production site or R&D center.

A spokesperson for BioNTech denied this was the case and said, “contrary to what the article states, BioNTech has even broadened its plans in Africa.”

It remains unclear whether a bulk production facility in South Africa or Senegal continues to be part of BioNTech’s plans.

About the Author(s)

Millie Nelson

Editor, BioProcess Insider

Journalist covering global biopharmaceutical manufacturing and processing news and host of the Voices of Biotech podcast.

I am currently living and working in London but I grew up in Lincolnshire (UK) and studied in Newcastle (UK).

Got a story? Feel free to email me at [email protected]

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