BioNTech’s long-term plan to develop COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing on African continent needs to be massively accelerated
Berlin/Geneva, 21 June 2021 — On the eve of BioNTech’s annual shareholder meeting, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) called on the Germany-based pharmaceutical corporation producing a leading mRNA COVID-19 vaccine to immediately and openly share its vaccine technology and knowledge with able manufacturers in developing countries, to help ramp up production of lifesaving vaccines for countries still waiting for sufficient supply. BioNTech’s recently announced plan to establish vaccine manufacturing on the African continent over the next 4-5 years should go hand in hand with the company immediately sharing its technology and recipe with manufacturers ready to start producing now.
“We’re facing massive vaccine access inequity across the globe for COVID-19. Yet right now, several countries have manufacturing capacity that could be used to produce mRNA vaccines to help alleviate this deadly imbalance,” said Lara Dovifat, Campaign and Advocacy Advisor for MSF’s Access Campaign. “But to do so, we need BioNTech and other companies making mRNA vaccines to share the technology and knowledge needed to make these vaccines. The faster companies share the know-how, the faster we can put an end to this pandemic and be better prepared for future ones with more distributed production capacity globally, including in the global south.”
The mRNA vaccine technology in the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is an advantageous choice for use and manufacturing in developing countries and resource-limited settings because it can be stored at standard refrigerator temperatures for one month, is highly adaptable to new variants, and can be manufactured in smaller production sites with no prior experience in vaccine production, at relatively low cost.
In an initial mapping, MSF found that right now, several companies on the African continent could produce an mRNA vaccine if all requisite technology and knowledge were shared and necessary financial and technical support provided. Additionally, 10 developing-country vaccine manufacturers have expressed interest in receiving such mRNA vaccine technology transfer through the World Health Organization (WHO) mRNA technology transfer hub. But so far, neither Moderna nor Pfizer/BNT – the two pharmaceutical corporations that have achieved emergency approval for mRNA vaccines – have offered to share their technology.
Experience with Moderna and BioNTech so far has shown that technology transfer of those mRNA vaccines (to manufacturers they have chosen) has taken between 5 and 8 months, respectively, demonstrating that it is feasible to share vaccine know-how and set up production relatively quickly. Governments must therefore use all means to push companies to engage in tech transfer with other able manufacturers, in a way that is transparent, open for worldwide coverage of supply, and open to multiple manufacturers. In a recent resolution, the EU parliament stressed the importance of incentivising voluntary licensing agreements and voluntary technology and know-how transfer to developing countries to urgently expand global production of vaccines.
Importantly, BioNTech benefitted from robust public support through the German government and other public sources: BioNTech received a €375 million grant from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, €100 million in debt financing from the European Investment Bank, and a US$250 million investment by an investor group led by Temasek, a sovereign wealth fund of the Government of Singapore.
“Given the significant public investment in this vaccine, it is imperative that BioNTech share its vaccine recipe with independent manufacturers in middle-income countries, including those on the African continent. This would be a first step towards African-made vaccines, contribute to the continent’s preparedness for future pandemics, and reduce its dependence on vaccine imports, while guaranteeing that people across countries in Africa get timely access to these lifesaving health tools,” said Christian Katzer, General Director of MSF Germany. “The German government has an opportunity and an obligation to leverage its investments and urge technology sharing to boost vaccine production globally. Doing so will help save as many lives as possible, as soon as possible.”
MSF is also calling on the German government to immediately donate doses to COVAX, and to support the ‘TRIPS Waiver’ proposal at the World Trade Organization to remove intellectual property barriers for all COVID-19 medical tools during the pandemic.