The Ebola and Covid-19 health crises could have been major disasters for Africa considering the below-par manufacturing capability and limited access to technology that impede Africa’s ability to produce healthcare equipment and drugs in order to respond to these sorts of crises. The recent arrival of the six ISO-sized shipping BioNTech containers (BioNTainers) in Rwanda reflects the determination of African nations to address their vulnerabilities in this regard. The move will have numerous intended and unintended benefits for Rwanda in particular and Africa in general.
The biggest advantage is the health research knowledge transfer, especially in relation to local diseases. Indeed, the BioNTainers will use the mRNA vaccine platform to research the most problematic diseases on the continent, namely malaria, tuberculosis and HIV. BioNTech had already started its research on these diseases as evidenced by the malaria vaccine candidate BNT165 and the tuberculosis vaccine candidate BNT164. Following the Kigali Summit on Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases during CHOGM 2022 in June 2022, this partnership is an important step towards the eradication of NTDs (Neglected Tropical Diseases).
Secondly, the fully functional BioNTech mRNA modular factory in Rwanda is an addition to the BioNTech end-to-end manufacturing facility that was launched in June 2022 and is currently under construction in the country’s capital Kigali. With a projected average production capacity of 50 million mRNA-based vaccine doses per year, the BioNTech mRNA plant will solely serve African Union member states.
This initiative will address the manufacturing gap that has seen Africa mostly relying on imported drugs and vaccines even in times of healthcare emergencies. For instance, the Ebola Virus Disease had been ravaging East-Central and West African populations since 1976 and it is only in 2019 that a vaccine was developed in Canada. These are 42 long years of intermittent suffering that could have been shortened with an adequate partnership, such as the BioNTech collaboration.
More recently, the world went through a traumatizing experience due to the Coronavirus pandemic that froze the whole world and secluded Africa from the vaccine development race. Hopefully, the recurrence of such a situation will be avoided, or at least its duration markedly reduced, with the coming of end-to-end manufacturing and supply facilities throughout Africa.
Thirdly, local production infers a drastic reduction in production cost, which will, in turn, result in a reduction in the cost of drugs. Of course, locally producing a vaccine might require starting from a vast amount of loan but ultimately the loan gets paid back because of the value creation, the close access to a starved market, and a low production cost. In the long run, the host country saves a lot and can divert its budget to more pressing national matters while creating value and jobs at the same time. When the loan is fully paid back, such deals propel a country to global heights in terms of self-reliability, competitiveness, and local healthcare provision.
Lastly, there is an inherent benefit to the fact that such a manufacturing establishment comes with a certain set of global quality standards that are mandatory to follow. Local logistic capacities, equipment such as vaccine storage machines, research laboratories, personal protective equipment, and the like must meet globally approved standards. Hence the inherent component of high-quality skills provided to local personnel, especially in sectors that are not directly health-related, will be valuable for the beneficiary country. As a matter of fact, BioNTech is planning to train 100 staff who will lead the vaccine production along with quality assurance and laboratory sites.
It is worth noting that the BioNTech-Rwanda partnership has much wider implications. As part of achieving an integrated and resilient healthcare system, Rwanda is addressing the issue of a lack of health planning policies that have historically undermined the ability of African countries to adequately respond to health crises. What is more, the project is opening up Africa to the journey towards efficient healthcare systems as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO details six building blocks of adequate health systems, including the imperative to have access to medical devices and products of which vaccine is a vital component. Such a bold step from Rwanda will, in one way or another, increase the interconnection between African states and turn African isolation into an asset by meeting the demand of our own market. As such, local production of vaccines will considerably reduce Africa’s reliance on foreign health assistance and prepare us for any future health crises.
In many ways, the project is a historic landmark that must inspire other African countries to venture into the infinite opportunities that are in the healthcare sector manufacturing starting from medical equipment consumables, devices, drugs, etc. Public-private partnership has shown to be a viable option in addressing major issues on the African continent, and Rwanda has been at the forefront of that strategy in numerous sectors. Senegal, and potentially South Africa, have also brokered deals with BioNTech to become part of BioNTech’s initiative to cover the entire continent.
To be sure, partnering with external parties is admirable but it will never replace investment in local research, which is crucial in the 21st century. The scientific spirit must not only be backed by heavy financing but inserted into the education system. China, Japan, and India are excellent examples of how creating indigenously inspired knowledge must be the ultimate goal for a nation if self-reliability is what it strives for. We could project having an African HIV vaccine or a well-researched and approved malaria cure in the near future, courtesy of such initiatives on the continent.
As they say, necessity is the mother of innovation. The latest global events have pushed Africa to adopt tailored strategic approaches to tackling glaring continental gaps. With this strategic BioNTech collaboration, African countries should realize the vast array of opportunities they have at their disposal to build a useful network and address local issues, as we prepare ourselves to be the nest of future solutions.