Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine
Image Credit: AP

The Biovac Institute, a partly state-owned vaccine producer in South Africa, has produced its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines as part of an arrangement under which it aims to fill and package as many as 100 million doses a year of Pfizer Inc. and BioNtech SE's inoculation.

The doses, produced last week, are the first Pfizer shots for the disease to be made in Africa and will be evaluated by the South African Health Regulatory Products Authority before subsequent batches are planned for commercial sale next year, said Morena Makhoana, the chief executive officer of Biovac.

The arrangement with Pfizer is part of a response by global pharmaceutical companies including Moderna Inc. and Johnson & Johnson to criticism that they did little to help poor countries during the worst days of the coronavirus pandemic. Richer nations snapped up more vaccines than they could use and poor countries, many of them in Africa, had barely any to give to their citizens.

Johnson & Johnson has licensed South Africa's Aspen Pharmacare Holdings Ltd. to produce its vaccine in South Africa and Moderna is looking to have its shot manufactured on the continent.

Even as demand for the vaccines has waned across the world, with the latest variants causing less severe disease, medical scientists have continued to urge the distribution of inoculations as they reduce the chances of hospitalization and death. Cape Town-based Biovac is banking on continued demand for Pfizer shots as top ups, or boosters, to extend immunity.

"We are going to get into the booster market," said Makhoana, shortly before walking past banks of 130 ultra-cold freezers chilled to minus 75 degrees Celsius (minus 103 Fahrenheit) at Biovac's facilities on Monday. The Pfizer shots will be stored in the freezers at the temperature required to ensure they remain effective.

Still, Aspen has struggled to get orders for its version of the Covid-19 vaccine and has largely pivoted to making routine inoculations such as pneumococcal, rotavirus, polyvalent meningococcal and hexavalent shots.

The World Health Organisation has taken a different approach by setting up an mRNA technology hub, also in Cape Town, under which it's planned that Afrigen Biologics Ltd. will develop a Covid-19 shot of its own and that know-how will then be transferred to at least 15 production facilities in low and middle income countries across the world.

Biovac, which expects to employ 584 people by the end of this year compared with just 30 in 2003, will be the first production facility to receive the technology transfer from Afrigen and is investing in facilities that will allow it to produce its own vaccine substance, rather than just receiving that substance from a company such as Pfizer and then filling vials and packaging it.

As much as 2.5 billion rand ($144 million) will be raised for that expansion with financing arrangements through a range of development finance institutions and the European Union to be completed next year, Makhoana said.

The lenders include the International Finance Corp., Deutsche Investitions- und Entwicklungsgesellschaft GmbH, British International Investment Plc, the African Development Bank, Proparco, the Eskom Pension & Provident Fund and the US International Development Finance Corp.