EU hopes to head off criticism after BioNTech announces first African COVID vaccine site

The rapid spread of the Omicron variant has reminded us that the pandemic will not be over until all countries have vaccinated their people. The EU should focus its attention on vaccinating Africa, writes Professor Alberto Mantovani. EPA-EFE/SIPHIWE SIBEKO / POOL

The European Union is hoping to head off criticism of its distribution of COVID vaccines from African states, after German pharma giant BioNTech announced on Tuesday (26 October) that it would establish its first African site producing COVID vaccines early next year, with EU support.

Speaking at a media briefing in Kigali, Rwanda, following a two-day meeting between EU and African Union foreign ministers, EU Commissioner for International Partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen, said the first site would be built in Rwanda.

The facility, which will initially have a production capacity of 50 million COVID-19 vaccine doses per year, will be partly financed by the EU, courtesy of a €22 million European Investment Bank loan and a €5 million EU grant.

BioNTech, which has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Rwandan government and the Institut Pasteur de Dakar in Senegal, added that the two sites would also build facilities for final production steps and bottling in a process known as fill and finish, meaning that all aspects of production would take place on-site.

The German group said it was also in talks with South Africa’s Biovac Institute about expanding their current manufacturing partnership. In the summer, Biovac was at the centre of a row over the export of COVID-19 vaccines bottled in South Africa to Europe, that embarrassed the European Commission.

The move was immediately welcomed by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who said COVID vaccine production “for Africa in Africa” was the “only viable long-term solution to any pandemic.”

Currently, around 5% of Africans are fully vaccinated against Covid.

However, Anna Marriott, policy lead for the People’s Vaccine Alliance, said the initiative, though a positive development, represented “far too late from a company that has made a killing from the pandemic.”

“Offering to only start building a facility in Africa in the middle of next year that will then at some point produce just 50 million doses – enough for just 2% of the continent’s population – is pittance when just one of their factories in Germany produces more than that each month,” she added.

However, the initiative could help reverse the tide of criticism from African leaders, who have accused Europe of practising ‘vaccine nationalism’ by being slow to offer surplus vaccines. Only a fraction of surplus vaccines promised by the EU have arrived in African countries, while supplies from the international vaccination programme, COVAX, have also been slow to arrive.

The EU has also led opposition to the campaign led by South Africa and India for intellectual property rights on COVID vaccines to be temporarily waived in order to allow African states to produce their own versions of the vaccines.

Speaking at the start of the ministerial meeting, Monique Nsanzabaganwa, the vice-chairperson of the African Union Commission, urged the EU to recognise the vaccination certificates of Africans wishing to travel to Europe, arguing that this could help convince more Africans to receive the vaccination.

“To support these vaccination efforts the recognition by our European counterparts of vaccines and vaccination certificates issued by member states authorities in conformity with Africa CDC recommendations is pertinent,” Nsanzabaganwa said.

“This will allow our sister continents to be able to continue engaging productively particularly at the economic level,” she added.

Last month, the UK announced a policy that would only accept COVID-19 vaccine certificates from a handful of African countries, and the EU is under pressure not to impose similarly restrictive measures.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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