(Bloomberg) -- BioNTech SE is revising plans to build a manufacturing network of vaccine plants in three countries in Africa, just over a year after breaking ground on the first facility in Rwanda.
In a potential blow for Africa’s hopes of greater vaccine self-reliance, the German biotech company is currently not moving forward with a plan for a manufacturing facility in South Africa, according to people familiar with the project, who asked not to be identified discussing confidential information. In Senegal, BioNTech is now holding discussions about developing a smaller-scale manufacturing site or possibly an R&D center.
The moves come after BioNTech shipped six containers to Kigali, Rwanda, in March. The company designed its ‘BioNTainer’ facilities as part of an ambitious program to help ensure people on the continent have equitable access to the mRNA technology that soared to prominence during the race to develop a vaccine against Covid-19.
BioNTech said as recently as December that in addition to Rwanda, where construction is continuing, it expected to ship BioNTainers to Senegal and potentially South Africa as part of a push toward a “decentralized and robust end-to-end manufacturing network in Africa.”
In response to questions from Bloomberg, BioNTech said its “goal of helping to democratize access to innovative medicines remains unchanged.” It said work to establish commercial-scale vaccine facilities in Rwanda is under way, but it made no reference to manufacturing in South Africa. It said it’s currently focused on conducting clinical trials on an mRNA-based tuberculosis shot in the country at the foot of the continent.
When the BioNTainers landed in Rwanda, the timeline on the delivery was already longer than BioNTech initially announced when it broke ground on the Kigali site in June 2022. At that point, the drugmaker said its target was to deliver the first set of BioNTainers by the end of 2022. Manufacturing in the BioNTainers was expected to start about 12 to 18 months after their installation, BioNTech said.
Each BioNTainer module is composed of six ISO-sized shipping containers, and the Rwanda site will have two modules. Though the modules are self-sufficient, they rely on local infrastructure for logistics, quality control, warehousing and cold and frozen storage, according to a presentation BioNTech made during a European Parliament visit to Mainz, Germany, last year. They would be able to produce about 50 million doses of Covid vaccine, according to the presentation.
Plans for a manufacturing facility in South Africa haven’t moved forward in six months, and there has been no communication with potential local partners since late March, the people familiar said.
There’s no set date for the arrival of BioNTainers in Senegal, and talks with BioNTech are ongoing, said Lamine Sene, senior project manager for the vaccine manufacturing facility of the Institut Pasteur de Dakar. “The project is moving forward,” Sene said. “We’re not working on the same schedule as Rwanda or South Africa.”
Rwandan government representatives didn’t return a call seeking comment on Friday.
--With assistance from Katarina Hoije and Naurine Ondiro.
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