By Annonciata Byukusenge
What BioNTech’s partnership with Africa demonstrates is that vaccine technology can be democratized, President Paul Kagame said on Monday, December 18, during the official launch of BioNTech’s first mRNA vaccine manufacturing plant on the African continent.
Kagame alongside First Lady Jeannette Kagame joined several Heads of State and Government, among other high-ranked officials at Kigali Special Economic Zone, in Gasabo District, where the 300,000 square meter facility is based.
He commended high-ranking officials for showing up at the launch, particularly pointing out BioNTech founders Dr. Ugur Sahin and his wife Dr. Ozlem Tureci.
Kagame said: “We are very proud to have you, and all who have worked tirelessly to deliver this project.”
The facility, he said, is designed to be among the most advanced in the world.
“Most of the staff are from Africa including the site manager and engineer from Nigeria. The quality is the same as you would find anywhere else.”
Cooperation, and trust is key
Vaccine inequity, Kagame said, hit Africa hard during the pandemic.
“We found ourselves knocking on every door in search of doses.”
He added: “The situation was intolerable and the African Union (AU) came together to make a firm commitment that wouldn’t allow ourselves to be in that position ever again.”
“That is how Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, and Ghana, came to be pilot counties for vaccine manufacturing. Others have also joined and we have all made solid progress working together.”
Under the development, BioNTech plans to produce mRNA-based vaccines for the African continent at the facility.
Various mRNA vaccines such as the Covid-19 vaccine and, if approved, a whole host of other mRNA vaccines for diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria could potentially be produced in Kigali.
President Kagame also commended the Africa Center for Disease Control (CDC), for coordinating the partnership for Africa vaccine manufacturing.
“You may remember that the consensus at first was that mRNA vaccines could not even be administered in Africa. It was said to be too complicated for our health systems, then when we embarked on this journey to manufacture these vaccines on our continent, we were told that it would take a minimum of 30 years,”
“That was all wrong. It is possible. And because it is possible, it is also necessary.”
“But we could not have reached this point without a wider set of partnerships. The world mobilized quickly and effectively to support the African initiatives.”
President Kagame commended the President of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, who was also in Kigali, for her involvement in the project.
“With other partners in the EU, you became instrumental in initiating the collaboration with BioNTech and the EU commission has provided crucial support to Rwanda to build our regulatory capacity, support skills and training, and fund research.”
“Many individual partner countries stepped up as well, but today allow me to single out Germany which immediately put in place an extensive operation programme.”
Kagame thanked the World Health Organization (WHO) for their support towards Rwanda Food and Drug Authority (FDA)’s ML3 status in record time, the African Development Bank (AfDB) which took the lead in establishing the African Pharmaceutical Technology Foundation, and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) which supported Rwanda’s long-term vision for its pharmaceutical ecosystem.
“I am pleased to announce that Rwanda is moving to a new phase of collaboration with IFC to ensure that BioNTech’s investment is just the first of many.”
“The reason I wanted to mention all of this is that the real success factor, in today’s milestone, is trust and cooperation and we need more of that if we want to ensure that we are ready and resilient no matter what happens in the future.”
Taking the presence of Barbados Prime Minister Mia Motley in Kigali as an example, Kagame said that the concerns for health equity extend beyond the African continent.
“Rwanda and Barbados have been advising and supporting each other closely on Pharma-manufacturing.”
“We would like to see much deeper cooperation between Africa and the Caribbean, especially for pulled procurement to make our industries sustainable. In the end, we all have something to offer each other.”
The facility comes at a time when only one in 100 vaccine doses administered in Africa is currently produced on the continent, a figure that African leaders hope could be 60 times higher by 2040.