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.
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.
3) While it’s interesting to see that @BioNTech_Group is finally taking steps to produce #mRNA vaccines in African countries with #BioNTainer, it’s important to underline that the company's plan is taking a long time and comes with many unknowns.
— Lara Dovifat (@LDovifat) February 16, 2022
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.”
After a year of stalling efforts to scale up global vaccine production, BioNTech’s pop-up vaccine factories are little more than a neo-colonial stunt to try and maintain control of this life-saving technology in Africa.#BioNTainer #PeoplesVaccinehttps://t.co/1J7aUAFXuu
— Global Justice Now (@GlobalJusticeUK) February 16, 2022