Moderna plans African factory as vaccine makers battle criticism

Moderna says it plans to build a messenger RNA manufacturing plant in Africa to produce its Covid-19 vaccine and other jabs as the pharmaceutical industry fends off criticism it has not done enough to immunise the developing world.

The company said it would spend up to $500m to build a “state of the art facility” on the continent within two to four years with the goal of eventually producing up to 500m doses of vaccine each year.

However, Moderna’s plans appeared to be at a relatively early stage and it offered few other concrete details, such as a site for the factory or even the country it intends to pick.

The biotechnology group said the plant would produce its Covid-19 vaccine and potentially other experimental jabs in its portfolio that have not yet been tested in late-stage clinical trials.

The announcement comes as the industry battles claims it has resisted efforts to expand access to regions including Africa, where just 3.5 per cent of the population had been fully immunised by October 4, according to the World Health Organization.

Vaccine makers including Moderna have fiercely resisted a proposal that would force them to waive intellectual property rights to spur expanded use of their technologies, arguing that doing so would not result in the quick production of more doses.

Moderna’s announcement comes after BioNTech, co-developer of a Covid-19 vaccine with Pfizer, said it would establish an mRNA manufacturing facility in Africa.

The German-based vaccine developer held talks with the political leaders of Senegal and Rwanda in August and aims to have a partner for the easiest part of the process, filling vials, in the next year.

However, Moderna is the first company to announce plans for a wholly-owned mRNA facility in the region that would produce the active ingredient in the vaccine.

Stéphane Bancel, Moderna’s chief executive, said Africa needed such a facility to ensure wider access to vaccines and to prepare the continent for future pandemics, when mRNA technology could again play an important part.

He rejected criticism directed at vaccine manufacturers over delays in providing enough doses to the developing world through a global initiative known as Covax.

“The first proposal I made to Covax was in August 2020 but the partnership with Covax was signed in the spring in 2021 — so we lost a lot of time,” Bancel said, adding: “I don’t know why” there was a delay.

Health experts have said the lack of domestic vaccine manufacturing capacity in Africa left it exposed during the pandemic, as rich nations gobbled up the vast majority of doses.

Temporary efforts to curb exports of vaccines and ingredients by the US, Europe and India also accentuated a supply crunch in medium-income and developing nations.

Klaus Meyer, professor of international business at Canada’s Ivey Business School at Western University, warned there were big challenges to be overcome in establishing an mRNA facility in Africa.

“This is unlikely to be a quick fix for this pandemic as it will take time to establish,” he said.

Moderna’s push into Africa came a day after Sweden and Denmark suspended use of its vaccine in people under 30 years and 18 years of age, respectively, over concerns about a rare heart condition.

The countries cited a Nordic study showing a potential small increase in the risk of myocarditis and pericarditis among youths and young adults. Moderna’s shares closed down almost 9 per cent at $302.42 following the decision.

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