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Rwanda To Be Africa’s First mRNA Vaccine Manufacturing Base As BioNTech Launches

by Vincent Gasana
11:19 am

President Paul Kagame and dignitaries inaugurates the facility

 The terms, milestone, game changer, are so often overused, they at times lose their meaning. So too can the words partnership, cooperation. In describing the launch of the BioNTech SE’s vaccine manufacturing in Rwanda, however, such words suddenly seem like an understatement.

It was a trully ground breaking occasion, that brought together at least two of the world’s continents, Europe and Africa, to fulfil an ambition, that as President Kagame recalled, was seen as pie in the sky, only a few years before.

On Tuesday 18th December, Kigali industrial zone, on the outskirts of the Rwandan capital of Kigali, became the scene where the apparently impossible, the first manufacture of mRNA vaccines on the African continent, is to be realised.

             Three heads of state, Ghana’s Nana Akufo-Addo, Senegal’s Macky Sall, as well as their host, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, were joined by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von de Leyen, Barbados prime minister, Mia Mottley, and accompanying dignitaries, representing Burundi, Germany and South Africa, came together to birth the new venture.

You may remember” Kagame reminded his audience, “that the consensus at first, was that mRNA vaccines, could not even be administered in Africa. It was said to be complicated for our health systems.”

Then, when we embarked on this journey to manufacture these vaccines on our continent, we were told that it would take a minimum of thirty years. That, was all wrong. It is possible…What BioNTech partnership with Africa demonstrates, is that vaccine technology can be democratised.”

The story of how the impossible, became achievable, is in several parts, each with a beginning of its own. In her remarks, the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, told of one such beginning.

I remember, dear President Kagame, our conversation in Paris, 2021” she begun, “it was at the height of the pandemic. We agreed that Rwanda and Europe, must work together not only to bring vaccines to Africa, but vaccine production, and mRNA technology to Africa. So, we got together with world leading companies, like BioNTech…we teamed up with Rwanda, with Senegal, with South Africa, and with Ghana, and we built and we are building the first manufacturing capacity, mRNA producing capacity, on the continent, here in Kigali.”

Accompanying von der Leyen, was the Vice President of the European Investment Bank (EIB), Gelsomina Vigliotti. “Team Europe” as von der Leyen termed it, has already contributed 1.2billion euros, money that will fund the production of up to 50 million doses of vaccines per year, in two years from now.

The most important part of the story, of course, is of the two scientists and entrepreneurs, Professors, Ozlem Tureci and her husband, Ugur Sahin, who together founded BioNTech (Biopharmaceutical New Technologies), in 2008.

Both the company, and its founders, came to prominence, at the height of the Sars-Cov-2 pandemic. Their work in creating an mRNA vaccine (Messenger riboncleic), which was effective to 90% or slightly higher, put them at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic. The mRNA vaccine, uses a copy of a molecule (mRNA), to produce an immune response. The science of mRNA vaccine is so innovative, and so complex, that Professor Tureci, says of it, “at the beginning, it was like science fiction.” It was so innovative that the husband and wife team, at times found it difficult to find the money needed for their research. Today, the company is valued at more than $24 billion.

The company emphasises its social responsibility. “Our technology is for all citizens of this world” stresses Tureci. To achieve the high minded principle, as well as to speed up production, BioNTech’s designers came up with a construction concept they called the Biontainer, that could be transported wherever they wanted to set up a manufacturing base.

As Professor Ugur Sahin, who also serves as the company’s CEO explains, the construction is a “modular high tech manufacturing units that enable use of identical process across the whole network, regardless of whether the Biontainer is located in Europe, in Australia, or in Africa. It means, Africa will have one of the most advanced manufacturing facilities in the world.”

The Biontainer will have the capacity to manufacture any type of mRNA vaccine, not just Sars-Cov-2. “The facility allows making prophylactic infectious disease vaccines, as well as therapeutic cancer vaccines. They can produce more than 50 million doses annually, for regular public supply, or during a pandemic. Or they can be used to produce ten thousand mRNA doses for clinical trials.”

There is however, a lot of work yet to be done, before the actual manufacturing process begins. Next year, the building construction will be completed, regulatory frameworks put in place, and the all important training of local personnel begun.

We invest in building local capabilities, and training of talents and young scientists, not only in manufacturing, digital sciences, but also in AI (Artificial Intelligence). We want to ensure that Africa benefits further, from the coming wave of AI, including that algorithms are trained on locally relevant data sets and samples.”

The goal, says Sahin, is to ensure that the facility operates according to global standards. “In 2025, we expect to manufacture test batches for regulatory approval, which could become the first commercial batches of mRNA based vaccines, manufactured and delivered in Africa.”

The project will also research and develop other life saving new medicines, “that are specifically tailored to regional needs…Our vaccines against tuberclosis, malaria and mpox are already are already in clinical trials, and first clinical trials in Africa are underway…”

BioNTech’s approach is likely to tackle the problem of so called, vaccine hesitancy. The company will work with African researchers, communities and of course, regulatory authorities.

In working closely with all of you, and researchers and academic institutions, we want to contribute to the training of the next generation of scientists in Africa. It is clear to us that these potential future vaccines among life saving medicines, need to be produced in Africa, at the proper scale, and at an affordable cost.”

As in other similar projects that are attracted to Rwanda, the country will serve as a base, a template for the region and the continent.

This initiative we embarked upon in Rwanda, serves as a parallel move in establishing local mRNA vaccine production capability, in the African ecosystem. It is a collaborative effort, with every partner sharing a deep sense of commitment to ensure a sustainable success. It can serve as a model for any other partnership in Africa, and elsewhere…The success of the Rwandan facility, will pave the way for fostering the African vaccine ecosystem, in a holistic fashion…” contined Professor Sahin.

BioNTech is of course, a commercial concern, but on a continent used to being exploited, the company brings a true partnership, that is mutually rewarding, if not weighted more in Africa’s favour. It is in many ways, a unique initiative that promises to be trully transformative

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