The locally manufactured Pfizer vaccine is expected to be distributed across the 55 African Union (AU) member states from the third quarter of 2022, with production set to ramp up to over 100 million doses a year.

This is according to Biovac media relations officer Michelle Viljoen, who spoke to Health-e News following the announcement of a partnership between Biovac and Pfizer-BioNTech. The partnership will see Biovac become the first vaccine manufacturer in Africa to produce the mRNA Pfizer vaccine.

An as-yet undisclosed number of employees will be appointed to work on technical transfer activities, including on-site development and equipment installation. This is set to commence immediately.

Various advocacy groups have in the past year called for COVID-19 related pharmaceutical and technology manufacturers to share their skills and know-how with local manufacturers through patent waivers.

This sentiment gathered momentum as high-income countries bought and hoarded the bulk of available vaccines and personal protective equipment (PPEs), leaving middle- to low-income countries to scramble for leftovers, widening the already existing gap that prevents the equitable sharing of resources.

Viljoen said that the calls for patent waivers were not behind the formation of their partnership with Pfizer-BioNTech. Rather, it is an already-existing partnership with Pfizer, through the pneumo-conjugate vaccine against Streptococcus pneumonia, that is behind the vaccine technology and skills-sharing move.

Pfizer vaccine: Bilateral talks

“Biovac has been holding these discussions on a bilateral basis between itself and Pfizer/BioNTech. This was against the backdrop of an existing partnership that we have had with Pfizer since 2015,” said Viljoen.

However, one expert has told Health-e News that it was hard to tell whether Biovac’s target of delivering the locally manufactured vaccines in the third quarter of 2022 was a realistic timeline.

“It is an extremely aggressive timeline, especially given the issues related to COVID-19 and social unrest that may detract from progress. They may have a chance of reaching it if local capacity and capabilities are already very advanced and capable of large-scale production of complex biological molecules,” said public health and health technology expert at global health advisory BroadReach Group Dr Ernest Darkor.

“However, without knowing what our current starting baseline is in South Africa, it is hard for me to give a specific prediction.”

Despite this, Darkor added that the announcement is great news for the country and the continent as a whole, as it represents a critical step towards Africa acquiring world-leading biotechnological capabilities that will serve us well in the long term.

However, it is important to manage public expectations in terms of what the partnership means. Darkor explained that establishing largescale affordable local manufacturing was a complex and involved process that may take a very long time, and local manufacturing was not a silver bullet to solving the current vaccine supply crisis. The cost associated with such large-scale production will also play a crucial role in determining whether the vaccines will be affordable for consumers.

Very expensive

“Setting up new advanced manufacturing capabilities and achieving largescale production is a very expensive undertaking in the short to medium term and, if this cost is passed on to consumers, it means that our vaccines may be significantly more expensive than those available from countries that have had the largescale capacity in place for many decades. If we end up with very expensive versions of the same vaccines, no one in Africa will buy them from us and the initiative will not be financially viable,” he explained.

Government would also need to improve health service delivery, health education and improve the skills and capabilities of the healthcare workforce.

“The announcement gives us a further imperative to do what is necessary to fix our health systems so we do not waste the massive investments that are about to be made. A big part of fixing our health systems will involve the appropriate use of data and digital technologies that can help us to effectively address many of our longstanding challenges.

“These include a lack of health education of the general population, rural areas lacking access to services, health systems lacking knowledge about how to most effectively deploy their scarce resources and health workforces who lack the skills or capabilities required to provide quality services,” said Darkor.

The vaccine manufacturing facility is expected to be brought into the Pfizer-BioNTech supply chain by the end of 2021. – Health-e News