The South African firm will begin producing the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in 2022 and all will be marked for distribution for countries under the African Union.

Empty vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus (Covid-19) vaccine are seen at The Michener Institute, in Toronto, Canada, January 4, 2021.
Empty vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus (Covid-19) vaccine are seen at The Michener Institute, in Toronto, Canada, January 4, 2021. (Reuters)

Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE have said they had struck a deal for South Africa's Biovac Institute to process and distribute over 100 million doses a year of their Covid-19 vaccine for the African Union beginning in 2022.

Technical transfer, on-site development and equipment installation activities will begin immediately, they said. 

Biovac, a public-private partnership focused on vaccine production, will receive Covid-19 vaccine drug substance made in plants in Europe, and will begin so-called fill-finish operations, the last stage of drug manufacturing and packaging, in 2022.

Pfizer announced the partnership ahead of a speech by Chief Executive Albert Bourla at a World Trade Organization (WTO) Summit.

Pfizer's goal is to provide access to its vaccine to people everywhere, CEO Bourla said. But the vast majority of its vaccine doses have been sold in bilateral deals to rich countries and only a small amount was made available to the UN-backed effort to share Covid-19 vaccines fairly.

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Doses will be distributed among 54 countries of Africa

The Biovac Institute based in Cape Town will manufacture the vaccine for distribution across Africa, in a move that should help address the continent's desperate need for more vaccine doses amid a recent surge of cases.

Biovac will receive a large batch of ingredients for the vaccine from Europe and will blend the components, put them in vials and package them for distribution. The production will begin in 2022 with a goal of reaching more than 100 million finished doses annually.

Biovac's production of doses will be distributed among the 54 countries of Africa.

The development is “a critical step” in increasing Africa's access to an effective Covid-19 vaccine, Biovac chief executive Dr Morena Makhoana said.

READ MORE: BioNTech shot produces 10 times more antibodies than China's Sinovac: study

IP rights for vaccines

WTO members have been in talks for months on waiving drug firms' intellectual property (IP) rights for Covid-19 vaccines. Most developing countries support the waiver but several wealthy countries remain strongly opposed, saying it will deter research that allowed Covid-19 vaccines to be produced so quickly.

In his prepared remarks, Bourla made a plea for the group to maintain the current IP rules.

"Weakening IP rules will only discourage the type of unprecedented innovation which brought vaccines forward in record time and make it harder for companies to collaborate going forward," Bourla said.

Last month, the World Health Organization said it was setting up a hub, or training facility, in South Africa to give companies there the know-how and licenses to produce Covid-19 vaccines. Biovac was one of the initial participants in the hub.

Biovac has partnered with Pfizer since 2015 to manufacture and distribute its Prevenar 13 pneumonia vaccine.

READ MORE: Pacific Rim nations agree to step up Covid-19 vaccine sharing

Over 220,000 people getting shots on weekdays

South Africa is relying upon the Pfizer vaccine in its mass inoculation drive. It has purchased 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which are arriving in weekly deliveries.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is already being produced in South Africa. Aspen Pharmacare's factory in Gqeberha, formerly Port Elizabeth, is making the J&J vaccine in the same “fill and finish” process and has the capacity to make more than 200 million doses of the vaccine annually. The J&J vaccines made in South Africa are also being distributed across the African continent.

South Africa's vaccination drive is ramping up, with more than 220,000 people getting shots on weekdays. More than 5.5 million of South Africa's 60 million people have received at least one jab, with more than 1.4 million fully vaccinated, according to official figures on Wednesday.

South Africa's goal is to vaccinate about 67 percent of its population by February 2022.

Vaccination levels are low across Africa, with less than 2 percent of the continent's population of 1.3 billion having received at least one shot, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

READ MORE: French scientists: More people need to be vaccinated to stop Delta variant

The UN-backed effort to deliver coronavirus vaccines worldwide known as COVAX has stumbled badly in the past months. It has delivered only 200 million vaccines globally since February, while the US alone has administered more than 338 million doses. After COVAX’s biggest supplier — the Serum Institute of India — halted exports in March to deal with an explosive surge on the subcontinent, the agencies behind COVAX, including the World Health Organization, resorted to begging rich countries for donations.

Most of the promised doses won’t arrive until next year and although Group of 20 countries pledged to donate a billion Covid-19 vaccines, that is far short of the 11 billion WHO says are needed to protect the world.

READ MORE: South Africa enforces stricter lockdown measures amid a surge in cases

Source: TRTWorld and agencies