Blasting vaccine inequity, Rwanda eyes to become vaccines hub in Africa

Blasting vaccine inequity, Rwanda eyes to become vaccines hub in Africa
BioNTech mRNA Vaccine Manufacturing Facility, Rwanda

Rwanda has committed to host the vaccine-manufacturing hub in order to share vaccines with the rest of East Africa as a way of strengthening regional integration and building regional capacities in the region whose healthcare system was caught off-guard recently by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A study presented recently by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) concluded that yet the vaccine development process was initially a story of hope and an example of the potential of human solidarity, there was hope that global solidarity would prevail as countries committed to the COVAX initiative.

Findings suggest that this flicker of hope was extinguished as quickly as it had been kindled. Countries bypassed COVAX through bilateral deals and raced to secure more than 100 percent, and in some cases up to 500 percent, of the vaccines needed for their own populations.

“I played a key role as chair of the African Union during the covid-19 period, we felt like we were beggars when it came to vaccines availability, we needed access to vaccines and the northern hemisphere countries had bought all the vaccines in the world;” mentioned Cyril Ramaphosa, South African president during the new global financing pact summit in Paris last June.

Equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines

Prof. Agnes Binagwaho, former Rwandan Minister of health and Kedest Mathewos, her research associate who co-authored the ORF study concluded that Rwanda has been a role model for other low-income countries especially for having effectively and equitably distributed the little amount of available vaccines to its population.

The study’s findings corroborated efforts to put in place a clinical development plan in the mid- to long- term. “African countries need to create new vaccine manufacturing sites in low and middle income countries, as the continent still imports 99 percent of its vaccines”

In a move to fill current vaccination gaps while deploying more efforts in  COVID-19 prevention, , Rwanda has embarked on producing COVID-19 and other vaccines as the country has been selected to host a manufacturing facility for the region.

Through this collaboration involving various stakeholders, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, is currently supporting the country to conduct diagnostic and feasibility studies to ensure the right technical and policy frameworks needed, to establish a world-class vaccine manufacturing supply chain in Rwanda, are in place to produce vaccines for use in Rwanda and to export across Africa.

The partnership is focusing on establishing end-to-end manufacturing capability for mRNA technology transfer hub to support manufacturers in low- and middle-income countries to produce their own vaccines and ensure that they have all the necessary operating procedures and know-how to manufacture vaccines at scale and according to international standards.

Recent progress made in vaccine production, according to health officials is currently contributing toward accelerating the country’s prevention and control strategy. 

"The more people are vaccinated, the more people have immunity, and the spread of COVID-19 can be effectively controlled," said Dr. Sabin Nsanzimana, Rwandan minister of Health referring to the current situation in the country.

The World Health Organization (WHO) mRNA technology transfer hub is part of a larger effort aimed at empowering low- and middle-income countries to produce their own vaccines, medicines and diagnostics to address health emergencies and reach universal health coverage. According to Rwandan health officials, these vaccines are not for Rwanda alone but for the region.

In March this year, Rwandan President Paul Kagame welcomed the successful shipment of the BioNTainer to Rwanda as a positive step towards ensuring equitable access to mRNA vaccines on the continent.

13 March 2023, Rwanda, Kigali: Sabin Nsanzimana (l), Rwanda's Minister of Health, and Sierk Poetting, Biontech's Chief Operating Officer, receive special containers from Biontech at Kigali international airport

Speaking at the occasion, the president of Rwanda called the breaking of ground a “milestone to vaccine equity”. “A historic milestone today as the first BioNTech’s BioNTainers arrived in Rwanda, exactly three years since the first case of Covid-19 was detected in our country. This system will allow end-to-end mRNA vaccine production in Africa for the first time.” Kagame said.

Rwanda has been described as a role model for other low-income countries after the country managed to effectively and equitably distribute the little amount of available vaccines to its population, prioritizing healthcare providers, the elderly, and individuals with underlying conditions and other people living in crowded conditions such as refugees and prisoners.

According to official estimates as of June 2023, Rwanda has vaccinated more than 10 million of its population. More than 26 million doses administered and over 70 percent of the population who received first jab. 

As of early March 2023, Rwanda has recorded 133,172 confirmed cases of Covid-19 with 1,468 deaths, reported to the World Health Organization (WHO). Official statistics indicate that 26,106,436 vaccine doses have been administered in the country.

Boosting manufacturing capacity

While some experts emphasize the need to prioritize technology transfer to revamp Africa’s pharmaceutical industry with a key focus on vaccine manufacturing capacity and building quality healthcare infrastructure, other believe that concerted efforts to promote technology transfer are urgently needed.

Against this backdrop, BioNTech has been expanding its state-of-the-art mRNA-based drug and product at candidate manufacturing facility in Kigali since breaking ground in June 2022.

The first African mRNA manufacturing facility in Kigali is based on the BioNTainer concept, exact replications of the BioNTech factory in Germany.

The 30,000-square-meter (323,000-square-foot) plant which is currently being established in Kigali contain two modular vaccine production containers and have an estimated annual capacity of about 50 million vaccine doses, according to the German biotechnology company. 

So far, Rwandan Minister of Health Sabin Nsanzimana, and Sierk Poetting, the chief operating officer of BioNTech, received six BioNTainers, each consisting of drug substances and formula capable of producing 50 million to 100 million vaccine doses a year in March this year.

BioNTech said the Rwanda plant would eventually become part of a wider supply network spanning several African nations, including Senegal and South Africa, in the next few years. All of the vaccines produced within Africa are intended for Africans, according to the company.

The modular production containers could also eventually be used to make mRNA vaccines against malaria or tuberculosis, BioNTech's CEO and co-founder, Ugur Sahin, said at the ceremony in Kigali. 

According to him, this would depend on how these products were developed and what future public-health priorities are being taken into consideration. 

As part of these efforts to boost manufacturing capacity the African Development Bank plans to invest up to US$3 billion to support the pharmaceutical industry over 10 years, the bank’s vice-president for infrastructure, Solomon Quaynor, said.

This will include, according to the bank, funding for transport and logistics infrastructure, and supporting Africa’s capacity for medicines regulation. Around $100 million will be invested annually in pharmaceuticals manufacturing, including vaccines.

The aim is to support two to three companies or projects each year. In addition, BioNTech in Mainz, Germany, which produced an mRNA vaccine with New York-based Pfizer, has announced that it will build manufacturing plants in Rwanda and Senegal, welcome recognition that something is wrong when vaccine manufacturing is almost completely absent from an entire continent.

“This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Global Health Reporting Initiative: Vaccines and Immunization in Africa.”