Pinelands pharmaceutical manufacturer Biovac has struck a deal with global drug companies Pfizer and BioNTech to produce their two-jab Covid-19 vaccine for distribution across Africa.
The mRNA vaccine teaches the body to make a protein that will trigger an immune response without using a live virus.
Less than 2% of Africa’s 1.3 billion people have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Public health and epidemic-management expert Dr Ernest Darkoh said the announcement was good news for South Africa and the rest of the continent.
“It represents a critical step towards Africa acquiring world-leading biotechnological capabilities that will serve us well in the long term,” he said.
“This venture will potentially have many additional benefits such as the jobs it will create and the development of skills it will foster.”
He added: “This is a tangible example of an African country and an African institution being able to hold its own at the forefront of global technological change. It is a long overdue milestone for the continent as a whole and a benchmark for excellence that sets us on the path to aspire to and do even bigger things.”
However, all the medicine in the world would make no difference, he cautioned, if sound health-care advice and institutions were lacking.
“In the case of vaccines, there is rampant misinformation being pumped out via different channels, and it is absolutely critical to mitigate this through information and educational campaigns to minimise vaccine hesitancy, otherwise it will become our biggest obstacle to achieving population-wide immunity.”
And local manufacturing was not a silver bullet to solve the immediate vaccine-supply crisis, he said.
Biovac CEO Dr Morena Makhoana said they were thrilled to collaborate with Pfizer and BioNTech to produce and distribute the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 Vaccine.
“This is a critical step forward in strengthening sustainable access to a vaccine in the fight against this tragic, worldwide pandemic. We believe this collaboration will create opportunity to more broadly distribute vaccine doses to people in harder-to-reach communities, especially those on the African continent.”
Safura Abdool Karim, a public-health lawyer and researcher at the Wits School of Public Health, said the deal would not change vaccine access overnight, but it was an important starting point.
“The work of Biovac has been great and it represents an important first few steps towards building meaningful production capacity in Africa.”
Biovac expects the facility will be brought into the Pfizer-BioNtech supply chain by the end of the year. The firm will obtain drug substances from BioNTech’s facilities in Germany and the manufacturing of finished doses will commence in 2022.
At full operation, the firm aims to produce 100 million doses annually.
Finance and Economic Opportunities MEC David Maynier said: “The Biovac Institute has long been a centre of excellence for the development and manufacture of quality vaccines for Africa. This announcement is also a welcome boost of confidence to the economy in Cape Town and the Western Cape, which is already a leading hub for health tech and innovation in the medical sector.”