- Pfizer and partner BioNTech plan to supply coronavirus vaccines to 55 African nations, announcing Wednesday an agreement with South Africa's Biovac Institute to finish doses from drug substance produced in Europe. When production has ramped up, Biovac will be able to supply 100 million doses a year.
- The two companies say the deal is part of a plan to supply 1 billion a doses a year to low- and middle-income countries in 2021 and 2022. So far, that effort included selling, at cost, 500 million doses that the U.S. government donated to a global vaccine pool. Pfizer and BioNTech donated added another 40 million to the same cause.
- The agreement is an attempt to calm significant criticism about the widening gap in vaccine access between wealthy and poorer nations. The World Health Organization has set a target of vaccinating 30% of the population of every country by the end of 2021.
Coronavirus vaccines have helped dramatically drive down case rates, hospitalizations and deaths in the U.S. over the first half of 2021. But that hasn't been the experience in many countries where vaccinations rates have been low or immunization programs have yet to begin, some of which are experiencing even worse outbreaks than in 2020.
The slow progress globally has intensified criticism of vaccine developers, which largely struck lucrative supply deals with wealthier nations. International outbreaks can also threaten progress in countries that are heavily vaccinated, as the continued spread of the virus increases the risk of a variant that can evade existing shots.
The WHO and other global health organizations have therefore urged vaccine manufacturers and wealthy nations to work out ways to expand supply, ranging from vaccine donations to easing intellectual property restrictions to deals with local manufacturers.
The WHO's goal of 30% is below that of the International Monetary Fund, which has set a benchmark of 40% of the population in every country by the end of 2021 and 60% by early 2022. Achieving that goal would cost $50 billion, but would be substantially outweighed by benefits valued at $9 trillion, the IMF said.
The deal with Biovac could help, though not for several months. Biovac's Cape Town manufacturing plant will be incorporated into the coronavirus vaccine supply chain by the end of 2021 and manufacturing of finished doses will begin in 2022, Pfizer said. Those doses will be delivered exclusively to the 55 nations of the African Union.
In the meantime, however, Pfizer aims to expand its existing manufacturing network, which now consists of 20 facilities on three continents. CEO Albert Bourla said the company is looking at potential partnerships in Latin America, for instance.
Pfizer and BioNTech's partnership with Biovac renews an already existing relationship. Since 2015, Biovac has helped produce Pfizer's pneumococcal vaccine Prevnar 13, which was the pharma's biggest selling drug in 2020.