July 21 (UPI) — U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer with its German partner BioNTech announced an agreement Wednesday with South African biopharmaceutical Biovac to produce their COVID-19 vaccine for distribution within the vaccine-strapped African Union.
The agreement, however, was met with criticism from international groups fighting poverty and for medical access as being a good step in the right direction that came too late and falls woefully short of what is needed.
The continent of Africa has been left essentially unvaccinated to the pandemic as richer nations buy available doses to inoculate their entire populations.
According to Oxford University’s Our World In Data project, only 1.1% of people in low-income countries have received at least one shot compared to the world average of 26.6%.
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The entire continent of Africa has only inoculated a little more than 3% of its population with at least one jab compared to North America at 45.5% and the European Union at 56.4%, the university said.
The Cape Town-based Biovac under the agreement is expected to be incorporated within the companies’ vaccine supply chain this year and distribute the life-saving jab exclusively to the African Union’s 55 member states once it is operational in 2022 with the goal of exceeding 100 million doses annually.
To facilitate this, Pfizer-BioNTech will “begin immediately” transferring technical knowledge to the company as well as participate in on-site development and equipment installation.
“From day one, our goal has been to provide fair and equitable access of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to everyone, everywhere,” Albert Bourla, chairman and chief executive officer of Pfizer, said in a statement. “Our latest collaboration with Biovac is a shining example of the tireless work being done, in this instance to benefit Africa.”
According to the World Health Organization, 50 African countries have distributed 71% of the 74 million doses the continent has received, most of which were supplied by the WHO-led COVAX initiative to provide equitable access to doses.
John Nkengasong, the director of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, praised the deal between Pfizer-BioNTech and Biovac in a statement to CNN as “great and welcome news that must be celebrated in the context of this pandemic as every action counts.”
“I see this as part of the collective action to address technology transfer and intellectual property,” he said.
Robbie Silverman, senior advocacy manager for Oxfam America and spokesperson of the People’s Vaccine Alliance, said that the agreement is good news but “it is simply not enough” as Africa will only see the doses it creates next year while it currently faces a shortfall in doses of the hundreds of millions.
“To date Pfizer have sold over 90% of their vaccines to rich nations only, while doctors and nurses are dying daily all over the developing world,” Silverman said in a statement. “Charity and largely symbolic measures by corporations will not deliver vaccines for everyone, everywhere. Only by sharing the technology and dramatically increasing manufacturing around the world, will we be able to finally gain the upper hand on the pandemic.”
Lara Dovifat from Doctor’s Without Borders’ Access Campaign echoed this sentiment, saying in a statement that while the deal is a first step it is “clearly not enough” for Africa to achieve vaccine independence.
Dovifat said the agreement fails to share Pfizer-BioNTech’s technology and knowledge, preventing Africa from independently manufacturing their own vaccines and being dependent upon the raw materials to be shipped to the continent from Europe.
“Instead of sharing their vaccine technology with the newly established World Health Organization mRNA technology transfer hub hosted in South Africa, which could boost production globally by capable manufacturers, Pfizer-BioNTech opted for yet another bilateral, restrictive deal,” Dovifat said. “MSF calls for urgent, full technology transfer to support independent and sustainable vaccine production and supply of mRNA vaccines on the African continent, which could be a game-changer for equitable global access to COVID-19 vaccines.”