KIGALI, June 23 (Xinhua) -- BioNTech, a leading biotechnology company on Thursday laid a foundation stone for the construction of the first manufacturing site for mRNA-based vaccines in Africa, expected to address the issue of vaccine equity.
The facility in Rwanda's capital city Kigali will be based on BioNTainer concept-- exact replications of the BioNTech factory in Marburg, Germany, according to Ugur Sahin, the chief executive officer and co-founder of BioNTech.
At an event in Rwanda's Special Economic Zone in Kigali, Sahin described the groundbreaking ceremony as a milestone in the setting up of scalable mRNA vaccine production in Africa.
The company expects to set up additional factories in Senegal and South Africa in close coordination with its partners in the respective countries.
"We have reached the next milestone with the construction start of the first African mRNA manufacturing facility based on our BioNTainers - just four months after we introduced the BioNTainer concept in February," he said.
"This factory will be the first in an African network to provide sustainable production capacity for mRNA pharmaceuticals. Further manufacturing facilities in Africa and on other continents are planned to follow. The goal we pursue together with governments and regulatory authorities is to produce vaccines for Africa here with highly skilled professionals from Africa," he added.
The company's program aims to develop a highly effective malaria vaccine based on BioNTech's mRNA platform with the vaccine candidates expected to enter first-in-human trials later in 2022, according to Sahin.
"The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the need for significantly greater local production of vaccines and other essential products in all regions of the world, especially in Africa which relies heavily on imported products and was left behind in the global rush for COVID-19 vaccines," said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General.
"I welcome BioNTech's efforts to establish manufacturing sites in Rwanda, Senegal and South Africa, as well as its plans to commence clinical trials of its malaria vaccine candidates later this year," he said.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame said, by working with other partners, Rwanda would build on the investment to attract a vibrant biopharmaceutical research and manufacturing sector.
"We are happy to have BioNTech as a partner, and I applaud the company's commitment to working with Africa on a continental basis to help secure our vaccine resilience for the future and invest in new research to address the endemic diseases that disproportionately affect our people," he said.
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission in a video message said the 'Vaccine Equity for Africa' project represents the immense potential of African and European cooperation.
"Our partnership will bring vaccine manufacturing in Africa to the next level," she said.
In a statement, BioNTech indicated it will work with staff from its sites in Germany to accelerate the training of about 100 colleagues who will be running the production and all associated laboratory and quality assurance tasks on the Africa site.
The BioNTainers will be equipped to manufacture a range of mRNA-based vaccines targeted to the needs of the African Union member states, which could conceivably include the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and BioNTech's investigational malaria and tuberculosis vaccines, once they are successfully developed, approved or authorized by regulatory authorities, according to the statement.
"The estimated initial annual capacity of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine will be about 50 million doses. Manufacturing in the BioNTainers in Rwanda is expected to commence approximately 12 to 18 months after their installation," it said. ■