Vaccine maker BioNTech is preparing to send modular vaccine factories in self-contained shipping containers to Africa to help the continent fight Covid-19.
The German firm, which partnered with Pfizer to produce the first mRNA jab, has developed a “laboratory in a container”, which could begin production in 2024.
According to its creators, two units of the BioNTainer two-storey modular containers could produce up to 50m doses of vaccine a year.
Each module consists of six standard-sized containers, occupies 400m2 and is scalable, meaning production volumes can be increased by adding additional containers.
BioNTech, which launched the scheme in partnership with the European Commission, African Union, and consultancy the kENUP Foundation, has said it intends to provide the containers, raw materials and required knowledge at no cost to governments.
However, host countries are required to provide land, infrastructure and reliable energy and water supplies.
BioNTech will initially staff and operate the facilities, but said it would train up local partners to enable independent operation.
“Vaccines manufactured in these facilities are expected to be dedicated to domestic use and export to other member states of the African Union at a not-for-profit price,” the firm said.
According to the company, the presidents of Ghana, Rwanda and Senegal have expressed interest in the facilities.
The BioNTainer can manufacture a range of mRNA-based vaccines – not only the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 formula, but also its malaria and tuberculosis vaccines, if approved by regulatory authorities.
Only 11% of Africa's population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19 – the lowest rate of any continent.
BioNTech chief operating officer, Sierk Poetting, said: “The modular production facilities are a big step in our journey to enable the production of high-quality mRNA vaccine manufacturing worldwide, with each BioNTainer becoming a node in a decentralised and robust African end-to-end manufacturing network.
“The modular and scalable approach could allow us to set up turnkey manufacturing sites for mRNA on all continents. Once rolled out, the approach could support clinical trials as well as regional pandemic preparedness measures.”
However, public health campaigners have accused BioNTech of undermining existing initiatives to produce mRNA vaccines in Africa and trying to ensure vaccine technology remains in Western hands.
They argue that supporting attempts by South African scientists to reverse engineer the vaccines could lead to much quicker production.
UK-based advocacy group Global Justice Now campaigner, Tim Bierley, said: “Under the first phase of the plan, BioNTech will use European staff to manage their 'shipping containers', while local producers are relegated to putting the vaccines into bottles.
“Any possibility of knowledge transfer is pushed off far into the future. This is inexcusable when we know there are several factories in Africa with the capacity to create these kinds of vaccines today, if BioNTech and others were willing to share the tech.”
BioNTech has been criticised for allegedly prioritising rich countries rather than developing nations with its vaccine supplies. Oxfam previously criticised Germany for exporting just 1% of its vaccines to Africa.
African leaders are urging vaccine manufacturers and governments to waive patents, enabling legal local production of generic coronavirus vaccines.