BioNTech / Pfizer: Bottling deal for mRNA vaccine with South Africa meets with criticism


Starting in 2022, the BioVac Institute in South Africa is expected to “produce” 100 million doses of BioNTech / Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine and distribute it to the countries of the African Union. The three companies announced this on Wednesday. The patient aid organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF) welcomed the move and at the same time declared it insufficient to deal with the third wave that is rampant on the African continent.

According to the agreement, Cape Town-based vaccine maker BioVac will be “integrated into the vaccine production chain” by the end of the year. For this purpose, BioVac will receive the vaccine substance from the production facilities in Europe and produce finished cans from the beginning of 2022, it says in the message. That means that the production step of the South African partner is limited to the so-called “Fill & Finish”, the sterile filling.

“From day one, our goal has been to provide fair and equal access to the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer / BioNTech for everyone around the world,” said Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla in the press release. The collaboration with BioVac in Cape Town, with which Pfizer already has a “Fill & Finish” contract for a vaccine against pneumococci, Bourla called a “shining example of the tireless work” that is being done.

BioNTech boss Ugur Sahin emphasized that his company’s mRNA technology could also be used to manufacture vaccines for other diseases. “We will therefore continue to examine sustainable approaches that support the development and production of mRNA vaccines on the African continent.”

Good, but not good enough, judged the aid organization Doctors Without Borders immediately after the deal was announced. It was hoped until the end that BioNTech and Pfizer would still get through to the deal on the World Health Organization (WHO) newly created mRNA Technology Transfers Hub Lara Dovifat from Doctors Without Borders in Berlin said that they would like to have the know-how needed for local production passed on.

Dovifat’s South African colleague Candice Sehoma warned that the agreement would not fully utilize the capacities available in African countries and worldwide for accelerated vaccine production. The continued dependence of African countries on vaccine production in the rich north is unacceptable. The delivery of the 100 million cans for filling for 2022, for example, is only a letter of intent for the time being.

In the coming week, the WHO will continue to wrestle about the so-called TRIPS waiver, the temporary suspension of claims from patent rights for COVID-19 vaccines, drugs and simple things like Covid tests. Covid drugs, unlike vaccines, could be manufactured quickly by generic drug manufacturers, Dovifat hopes. Tests, available in this country for 70 cents, are still not available in Africa.

However, Germany has placed itself in the forefront of the countries that do not want to hear about a suspension of patent rights. Federal Minister of Health Jens Spahn (CDU) had to be asked by UNAIDS Director Winnie Byanyima, Whether he wants to leave the decision of who and when to access the know-how of Covid vaccine production to the pharmaceutical companies alone, and whether he is ready to accept a development like the one when the AIDS epidemic occurred.


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