Pfizer and BioNTech will partner with a South African company to manufacture the final stages of their COVID-19 vaccine for distribution across the 55 countries of the African Union, the companies announced Wednesday.
In a statement, the companies said they signed a letter of intent with the Biovac Institute, a Cape Town-based, South African biopharmaceutical company.
The agreement marks the first time that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will be produced, at least partially, on the African continent. Africa has been struggling with a severe vaccine shortage at a time when wealthier nations have excess doses, and only about 1.5 percent of the entire continent is vaccinated.
The Biovac facility is expected to open at the end of 2021. At full operational capacity, the annual production will exceed 100 million finished doses annually, the companies said.
Pfizer said that technology transfer, on-site development and equipment installation activities will begin immediately.
But the contract with Biovac is only for “fill-finish,” meaning the actual vaccine substance will be manufactured in Europe first and then shipped to Cape Town, where vials of the vaccine will be filled and packaged. Manufacturing of finished doses will begin sometime in 2022, the companies said.
The United States supports a World Trade Organization (WTO) effort to push companies to waive their intellectual property rights on vaccine technology, which supporters argue will be a much more efficient way of getting vaccines to struggling nations.
If the patents are shared, supporters argue local manufacturers will be able to scale up manufacturing and distribution, rather than relying on international partners and global supply chains.
The pharmaceutical industry and several wealthy nations are opposed to the waiver idea, and say it will undermine incentives for innovation and will not actually solve the complex problem of getting more doses to lower-income countries.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla addressed those concerns in a speech to a WTO summit on Wednesday, according to prepared remarks.
“Weakening IP [intellectual property] 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.
To the people “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,” Bourla said.
He added that Pfizer “will continue to explore and pursue opportunities to bring new partners into its supply chain network to further accelerate access to COVID-19 vaccines.”
Pfizer and BioNTech have pledged to provide 2 billion doses of their COVID-19 vaccine to low- and moderate-income countries by the end of 2022.