Uğur Şahin, Özlem Türeci, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Holm Keller in Marburg (Andreas Arnold/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

BioN­Tech un­veils a 'cheap' ship­ping-con­tain­er kit for man­u­fac­tur­ing vac­cines glob­al­ly

What do you get when you com­bine 12 ship­ping con­tain­ers and some of the most in­no­v­a­tive sci­ence sur­round­ing vac­cines there is?

A fu­tur­is­tic way to make in-de­mand vac­cines.

BioN­Tech has made it known for months now that it wants to es­tab­lish do­mes­tic man­u­fac­tur­ing ops for vac­cines in Africa, where ac­cess is a big is­sue and vac­ci­na­tion rates for Covid trail well be­hind af­flu­ent coun­tries. And on Wednes­day the com­pa­ny re­vealed its first “mod­u­lar” mR­NA man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­i­ties in Sene­gal, Rwan­da and “po­ten­tial­ly South Africa.”

Sene­gal and Rwan­da are set to start con­struct­ing the first fa­cil­i­ties in mid-2022.

The fa­cil­i­ties are built-to-use sites made from stack­ing ship­ping con­tain­ers. Ear­ly Wednes­day morn­ing, the name BioN­Tain­er was re­vealed in a meet­ing at BioN­Tech’s Mar­burg site. The fa­cil­i­ty con­sists of a drug sub­stance mod­ule and a for­mu­la­tion mod­ule that is built of six stan­dard-sized con­tain­ers and al­lows for bulk mR­NA man­u­fac­tur­ing and for­mu­la­tion. Fill-and-fin­ish op­er­a­tions will be hand­ed over to com­pa­nies in Ghana and South Africa, BioN­Tech said in a state­ment.

It is to be made from ship­ping con­tain­ers — which means that up­on com­ple­tion, it can be placed on a boat, truck, air­plane or train to be brought to its fi­nal des­ti­na­tion. In oth­er words, they will be built in Ger­many and then shipped to spec­i­fied sites in Africa.

The new sites will pro­vide a more cost-ef­fec­tive way to make vac­cines. Right now, the fo­cus is on mR­NA for Covid-19 vac­cines. How­ev­er, CEO Uğur Şahin has pre­vi­ous­ly said that the com­pa­ny will look to make malar­ia vac­cines when the de­mand for Covid-19 vac­cines wanes.

At the same time, ac­tivists say that, with the new ef­fort, BioN­Tech con­tin­ues to ig­nore al­ter­na­tives that would al­low for more di­rect vac­cine pro­duc­tion on the con­ti­nent, in­clud­ing by trans­fer­ring its tech­nol­o­gy to es­tab­lished do­mes­tic African com­pa­nies.

Ad­di­tion­al­ly, on Wednes­day, he said that the sites will al­so man­u­fac­ture HIV vac­cines and can­cer treat­ments if they’re ap­proved. The BioN­Tain­er, the com­pa­ny claims, is not a fixed so­lu­tion, but rather a flex­i­ble so­lu­tion that will be able to be scaled ap­pro­pri­ate­ly. It will have the ca­pac­i­ty to pro­duce 50 mil­lion dos­es of mR­NA vac­cines a year, but if a com­pa­ny needs to shrink that num­ber for clin­i­cal tri­als, it will be able to do so.

Sierk Po­et­ting

There is no set cost yet, but CFO Sierk Po­et­ting said that it will be a far more af­ford­able method than build­ing more free­stand­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing cam­pus­es.

“A typ­i­cal (man­u­fac­tur­ing site) would cost $150 mil­lion. This is way cheap­er. Not cheap, cheap, but way cheap­er,” he said Wednes­day.

The con­cept is not ter­ri­bly dif­fer­ent from Cure­Vac’s pro­posed RNA print­er, which at­tract­ed the at­ten­tion, and lat­er, the fund­ing of Tes­la founder Elon Musk.

That RNA print­er aims to make mR­NA pro­duc­tion portable and would be able to be placed any­where from a hos­pi­tal to an air­port to pro­vide per­son­al­ized med­i­cine as a quick re­sponse to out­breaks. Orig­i­nal­ly, Cure­Vac’s fo­cus was on Las­sa fever, yel­low fever and ra­bies, but it piv­ot­ed amidst the Covid-19 out­break. Şahin and Po­et­ting said that it’s tough to com­pare the BioN­Tain­er to the RNA print­er, be­cause of the lim­it­ed knowl­edge they have.

BioN­Tech al­so pledged African ac­cess to fu­ture can­cer drugs at the Wednes­day morn­ing meet­ing, stat­ing that they would be avail­able and af­ford­able.

Vac­cines made in the BioN­Tain­er are ex­pect­ed to be used in Africa at a not-for-prof­it price. Sahin clar­i­fied on Wednes­day morn­ing that means at-cost. There won’t be any dos­es man­u­fac­tured in 2022, be­cause in­stal­la­tion of the first sites won’t be un­til the halfway point, but by 2023, the com­pa­ny could pro­duce up to 50 mil­lion dos­es, if there is a need for such a num­ber.

Ghana’s Pres­i­dent Nana Aku­fo-Ad­do said in a state­ment:

To­day rep­re­sents a mo­men­tous day for Moth­er Africa. An­oth­er step in the process to­wards self-re­liance has been tak­en, and I thank the Ger­man biotech­nol­o­gy com­pa­ny, BioN­Tech, and the kENUP Foun­da­tion for their con­tri­bu­tion to this end. We want to achieve self-suf­fi­cien­cy in vac­cine pro­duc­tion to meet fu­ture na­tion­al, re­gion­al and con­ti­nen­tal needs for health se­cu­ri­ty. Ghana reaf­firms her de­ter­mi­na­tion to make this Pan-African vac­cine project work and suc­ceed.

The com­pa­ny is work­ing on sev­er­al dif­fer­ent for­mu­la­tions of its Covid-19 col­lab­o­ra­tion with Pfiz­er. Right now, it’s work­ing to achieve a for­mu­la­tion that could be stored at room tem­per­a­ture for sev­er­al months. And any up­grade that is made at its man­u­fac­tur­ing head­quar­ters in Mar­burg could be im­ple­ment­ed in the BioN­Tain­ers with­in a few weeks.

But the an­nounce­ment comes af­ter a re­port from the BMJ that the kENUP Foun­da­tion, backed by BioN­Tech, al­leged­ly tried to dis­suade African gov­ern­ments from par­tic­i­pat­ing in WHO pro­grams to boost man­u­fac­tur­ing in Africa by say­ing the project was doomed and that the con­tain­er so­lu­tion was a vi­able al­ter­na­tive. The non­prof­it ar­gued that the tech­nol­o­gy trans­fer hub should be ter­mi­nat­ed im­me­di­ate­ly in or­der to keep from in­fring­ing on mR­NA patents.

And the an­nounce­ment was met with fur­ther crit­i­cism Wednes­day morn­ing from ac­tivists who say it cir­cum­vents more di­rect means of pro­duc­ing vac­cines on the con­ti­nent. MSF cam­paign man­ag­er Lara Dov­i­fat tweet­ed that the project ig­nores the fact that there are more than 100 com­pa­nies in mid­dle-in­come coun­tries that are ready to man­u­fac­ture vac­cines to­day, if al­lowed a tech­nol­o­gy trans­fer.

UK-based non­prof­it Glob­al Jus­tice Now was a bit more point­ed in its crit­i­cisms, tweet­ing out, “Noth­ing says ‘com­mit­ment to Covid-19 vac­cine fac­to­ries in Africa’ like be­ing able to ship them back to Eu­rope at a mo­ment’s no­tice.”

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