Shipping Containers Turned Labs: BioNTech’s New Initiative to Vaccinate Africa

By Dimitri Rhodes and Mariana Gomes

BioNTech SE (Nasdaq: BNTX, “BioNTech”) has just announced a new not-for-profit initiative to produce Covid vaccines in Africa. This project, set to launch in June of 2022, will port the vaccine manufacturing process out of factories, and into containers. 

In a press conference held on the 16th of February, BioNTech gathered government, corporate, and NGO leaders to unveil their new project: the BioNTainer. This initiative was created to overcome major hurdles in the production and distribution of vaccines on the African continent. 

“In Africa, [vaccination] stands at just 11 percent on average. And the global distribution of vaccines remains extremely unequal,” Olaf Scholz, Chancellor of Germany, said during the press conference. 

The project consists of two modules, each built from 6 ISO sized containers (2.6m x 2.4m x 12m), one for drug substance and another for drug formulation. BioNTech CEO Prof. Ugur Sahin explained that shipping containers will allow the company to standardize and drive down production costs to a minimum. They expect the 12 container set-up to pump out 50 million doses a year and to cost less than 150M€. In comparison, total costs of vaccine development in permanent facilities can range from 200 to 500M€

BioNTainer breakdown animation. Credit : BioNTech

Rwanda and Senegal will be the first countries to welcome the new lab containers, and South Africa will potentially follow next. The partner countries will be responsible for ensuring that the necessary infrastructure and amenities are in place, while BioNTech will be responsible for the delivery and installation of the modules, as well as staff training.

Click here to see how BioNTech hopes to achieve this!

Experts say this is a manufacturing solution to a long-term problem with vaccine accessibility on the continent. “A lack of dedicated personnel means you have to form them, especially in pandemics where things need to happen fast. This is a big problem,” Aneesh Thakur, Vaccine Design and Delivery Assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen, told 9to5.

Another challenge, Prof. Sahin pointed out, is making sure the Good Manufacturing Process (GMP) standards, the safeguards for pharmaceutical production, are upheld. “Safeguards don’t have the same level of sophistication or don’t exist at all in sub-Saharan countries,” Prof. Bettina Borisch, executive director at the World Federation of Public Health Associations (WFPHA), explains. However, she told 9to5 that the African Center for Disease Control (ACDC) has recently pledged to take a much larger role in this respect. 

Prof. Ugur Sahin, BioNTech CEO. Credits : BioNTech

The funding for this initiative, says Thakur, might originate from internal company funds, as well as global powers: the EU promised €1B to expand manufacturing and access to vaccines in Africa, while blocking measures to lift vaccine patents. However, according to Gelise McCullough, spokesperson for Medicines Patent Pool, BioNTech “has announced they will not enforce patents in low and middle-income countries should local productions replicate their vaccines.” 9to5 reached out to BioNTech to confirm this and received no answer.

But according to Thakur, BioNTech is still pursuing financial interests. In Africa, business opportunities in the health care and wellness sector are estimated to be worth $259 billion by 2030, with a potential to create 16 million jobs, a United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) report estimates.

“They can use this to get into the market”, Thakur says, as this venture is a way to get a foot in the door of mass vaccine production in Africa. The same infrastructure deploying mRNA technology can be used to produce other vaccines – such as against malaria or tuberculosis – shifting and relocalizing the vaccination production process. If successful, it could increase the global capacity for vaccine manufacturing. 

BioNTech hopes to start production at the end of 2023. This proof of concept, Prof. Sahin said during the press conference, “is the future of manufacturing, not only in Africa, but worldwide.”

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