Africa’s first mRNA vaccine production deal has finally appeared

Good afternoon, readers. I’m David Meyer, a senior writer on Fortune‘s Europe team, filling in for Sy today.

My native country, South Africa, has been having a terrible pandemic due to a mix of mismanagement, low vaccine supply and, most recently, regional violence that was partly rooted in the economic effects of lockdown. We’ll take good news where we find it—and luckily, some has arrived.

Pfizer and BioNTech have signed up Cape Town’s Biovac Institute to fill-and-finish doses of their COVID-19 vaccine. The substance itself will come from Europe, but this is nonetheless the first production deal for an mRNA vaccine in Africa. And its output—apparently more than 100 million doses annually, starting next year—will only be distributed on the continent.

Bear in mind that, with the vast majority of vaccine doses going to rich countries, Africa overall has administered only 4.5 doses per 100 people (Europe and the U.S. are on 80 or so.) As South African President Cyril Ramaphosa put it yesterday: “The partnership between Biovac and Pfizer is a breakthrough in our effort to overcome global vaccine inequity. The protection of Africans is a necessary and critical contribution to the protection of humanity as a whole.”

See also: Ramaphosa’s announcement earlier this month that J&J, which already uses a fill-and-finish contractor in South Africa, had agreed to “adapt the current arrangement so that we can produce the vaccine in South Africa under license rather than under contract, resulting in our country and the continent having control over the vaccines.”

“We are negotiating that in time the drug substance itself would be produced here in South Africa, so that we have a fully-owned African vaccine manufactured on African soil in a number of countries on our continent,” the president said. The U.S., it should be noted, is reportedly putting $200 million into J&J’s South African vaccine production. The EU is also investing $8 million in a Senegalese plant that should be producing vaccines late next year, again with the aim of reducing African dependence on imports.

Vaccine equity activists are still pushing for activation of the TRIPS waiver mechanism at the World Trade Organization, so vaccine makers have to share their intellectual property—a step they say would unlock the investment needed to drastically expand production. As the Health Justice Initiative’s Fatima Hassan put it to the Daily Maverick: “We have heard arguments that there was no capacity. This [Pfizer] announcement disproves that argument.”

But the Pfizer/BioNTech/Biovac and J&J announcements are unarguably steps in the right direction. Now let’s have more, please—and soon.

David Meyer


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