MSF responds to BioNTech’s announcement that it will establish production facilities in Africa

Lebanon - COVID-19 Vaccination

Lebanon 2021 © Mohamad Cheblak/MSF

NEW YORK, OCTOBER 27, 2021—Pharmaceutical corporation BioNTech—which produces an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine with Pfizer—signed yesterday a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Rwandan Government, Senegal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Senegal-based manufacturer Institut Pasteur de Dakar to initiate the construction of an mRNA vaccine manufacturing facility in Africa in mid-2022. This bypasses the World Health Organization’s (WHO) mRNA vaccine tech transfer hub in South Africa and does not address the need to share technologies with capable manufacturers worldwide, said Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

The recent BioNTech announcement was made on the sidelines of the ongoing AU-EU ministerial meeting in Kigali. While BioNTech aims to build an additional production facility in a region with very little capacity, it does not appear that their facility will bring much needed autonomous production and supply to the African continent—where countries import 99 percent of the vaccines they use—or global diversity in production and supply of COVID-19 vaccines.

While engaging in the lengthy process of building a new facility, BioNTech should also directly transfer vaccine technology to the existing WHO mRNA hub in South Africa. This hub exists precisely to link up the needed technology to produce mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 with manufacturers that have existing production capacity and are ready and able to start producing.

Candice Sehoma, South Africa advocacy officer for MSF’s Access Campaign, said of the announcement:

“BioNTech's MoU with the governments of Senegal and Rwanda should not undermine, but rather find potential synergies with the WHO mRNA hub’s mandate. While investigating options to build new mRNA manufacturing capacity in Rwanda and Senegal, BioNTech must share its technology with the WHO COVID-19 mRNA hub immediately to help end the pandemic. The WHO mRNA hub has a global remit and could efficiently transfer the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines technology to manufacturers in low- and middle-income countries both on the African continent and beyond, in a timely manner.

“The choice of South Africa as the host country for the WHO mRNA hub was the result of tremendous technical and political efforts from all parties involved. It is therefore reasonable to expect that African institutions and governments should lend full and unconditional support to the hub including when bilaterally negotiating with corporations that have consistently refused to share their technology with the WHO mRNA hub.

“Moreover, as no details were shared about the signed MoU between the Rwandan and Senegalese government, Institut Pasteur de Dakar, and BioNTech, questions remain, such as how intellectual property is going to be managed, which kind of mRNA vaccines are going to be produced in the new facility, or where the produced vaccines could be sold beyond the African continent. Furthermore, the communiqué appears to indicate that the initial staffing would come from BioNTech’s headquarters, which is unacceptable considering an African expert workforce already exists as part of the hub and should be involved in the process from the onset.

“BioNTech received hundreds of millions of Euros of public funding to develop this vaccine, and therefore should be accountable and make the MoU as well as other funding and manufacturing contracts available for public scrutiny.”

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