Drug manufacturer Moderna has announced plans to invest up to $500 million to build a factory in Africa that will produce up to 500 million doses of mRNA vaccines each year, including its COVID-19 shot.
The move follows increasing pressure on the pharmaceutical industry to manufacture drugs on the continent as only about 4.5% of Africans had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to date, according to John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).
African countries and the World Health Organization (WHO) have been urging drug makers to set up vaccine plants on the continent to help it secure supplies of COVID-19 shots that have been scrambled by wealthier nations.
Moderna’s proposed site is expected to include drug substance manufacturing as well as bottling and packaging capabilities. The U.S. drugmaker said it would begin the process of deciding the country and location soon, reported Reuters.
In a statement Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said, “We expect to manufacture our COVID-19 vaccine as well as additional products within our mRNA vaccine portfolio at this facility.”
However, Nkengasong, said he welcomed any efforts to address the continent’s medium- to long-term needs, but said Moderna’s plans would not solve its problems of securing COVID-19 vaccine doses now.
Bartholomew Akanmori, a vaccine regulation officer at the WHO’s Africa office, said the WHO hoped Moderna’s plant would help with diseases of public health interest other than COVID-19 and which had not yet received research and development support.
Moderna’s move comes as a debate rages between drug makers and governments about waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines to help end the pandemic and give more developing countries access to shots.
Potential candidates to host Moderna’s African plant include South Africa, Rwanda and Senegal, health experts say.
Pfizer and its partner BioNTech struck a deal in July for South Africa’s Biovac to help make around 100 million doses a year of their COVID-19 vaccine for Africa.
BioNTech said in August that it was looking into building malaria and tuberculosis vaccine production sites using mRNA technology in Rwanda and Senegal.
The WHO has been trying to persuade Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech to join forces with its plan for an African tech transfer hub, but there has not been much progress in talks.
Nkengasong said he hoped Moderna would work with an initiative called the Partnerships for African Vaccine Manufacturing launched this year which looks at Africa’s needs at a continental level.
“Ten countries in Africa have expressed an interest in vaccine manufacturing, (we) can actually bring them all together and put Moderna at the centre of that. … That would really speak to the need to be transparent and also … coordinate our efforts,” he said.