MSF: Pfizer-BioNTech and Biovac deal isn’t enough to ensure COVID-19 vaccine access in Africa

An MSF nurse administers a COVID-19 vaccine

Lebanon 2021 © Tariq Keblaoui/MSF

NEW YORK, JULY 21, 2021—US pharmaceutical corporation Pfizer and Germany‘s BioNTech announced today a collaboration with Biovac in South Africa, the only Southern African human vaccines manufacturer, to fill and distribute COVID-19 mRNA vaccine doses across the African Union. While this deal is a step in the right direction, much more is needed to support vaccine independence in Africa—a continent where people remain in desperate need of vaccines as they face new waves of infection, said the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Lara Dovifat, campaign manager with MSF’s Access Campaign, said of the announcement:

“While MSF acknowledges Pfizer-BioNTech’s agreement as a first step, this is clearly not enough to achieve vaccine independence on the African continent. Instead of sharing their vaccine technology with the newly established World Health Organization mRNA technology transfer hub hosted in South Africa, which could boost production globally by capable manufacturers, Pfizer-BioNTech opted for yet another bilateral, restrictive deal.

“The agreement fails to share Pfizer-BioNTech's technology and know-how to independently manufacture vaccines, and instead requires Biovac to remain dependent on drug substance from Pfizer-BioNTech's European facilities. For regions left behind in the vaccine race to be self-sufficient, they need access to all of the components of vaccine production, from the starting production steps through to manufacturing and packaging. MSF calls for urgent, full technology transfer to support independent and sustainable vaccine production and supply of mRNA vaccines on the African continent, which could be a gamechanger for equitable global access to COVID-19 vaccines.

We also call on the governments that have massively funded the development and production of these mRNA vaccines through the public purse—such as Germany—to use their influence with BioNTech and Pfizer to demand more from these companies. In addition, the agreement between Pfizer-BioNTech and Biovac must be made public as soon as possible, for full transparency.”

Candice Sehoma, Access Campaign advocacy officer with MSF-South Africa, said of the announcement:

“As we face a deadly ‘third wave’ of COVID-19 in South Africa and massive vaccine inequity across Africa, what we need is urgent sharing of lifesaving mRNA vaccine technology and knowledge with multiple manufacturers, including in African countries, to have adequate production and supply of vaccines. Africa has been all but left behind—only 1.6 percent of the people vaccinated worldwide are in African nations.

“Currently, several manufacturers on the African continent could produce an mRNA vaccine if sufficient technology transfer were to happen and necessary support provided. Setting up a production capacity of up to 100 million doses annually of Pfizer-BioNTech's mRNA vaccine in an existing facility in Africa could be achieved in less than 10 months and cost less than $20 million.

“The bilateral deal announced today fails to mobilize the full capacity on the continent and globally. Pfizer-BioNTech should stop following a piecemeal approach and widely share its technology and know-how to help alleviate this deadly imbalance of vaccine access.”