Days after an investigation revealed that BioNTech paid a Malta-based consultancy to derail South Africa’s effort to replicate mRNA vaccines, the pharma company says it will send portable factories in shipping containers to produce vaccines for COVID-19, and potentially other diseases, in Africa. AIDS Healthcare Foundation has described this move as thinly veiled public relations damage control by BioNTech and a solution in search of a problem.
“BioNTech can share the technological know-how for producing mRNA vaccines in South Africa tomorrow, if it really wanted to. The hairbrained idea of carting factories around the world instead of building on top of existing infrastructure is nothing more than a smokescreen for pharma greed and a pre-text for prolonging the monopoly on lifesaving vaccines and mRNA technology,” said AHF President Michael Weinstein.
Considering BioNTech claims one mobile factory would be able to produce only 50 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine per year—for a vaccine which requires two doses—the yield would be far below what is needed for the 1 billion unvaccinated people in Africa to get the shots in a reasonable amount of time.
Investing in local infrastructure and sharing the technology would also likely come at a substantially lower cost than engineering an entirely novel manufacturing process, that would then have to be exported to another continent and then meet a lengthy regulatory approval process of the host country. In an industry known for fierce margin maximization, what BioNTech is trying to buy with higher upfront cost is the total control of the manufacturing process, lest it become available to people everywhere at an affordable cost for the benefit of global public health.