As of Thursday, October 7, less than 5% of Africans had been fully vaccinated against the novel coronavirus. While wealthier countries have been buying up COVID-19 shots en masse, poorer nations and the World Health Organization (WHO) have been pleading with pharmaceutical companies to start manufacturing drugs on the underserved continent.
"We expect to manufacture our COVID-19 vaccine as well as additional products within our mRNA vaccine portfolio at this facility," Moderna
The plant is expected to include both drug production and packaging capabilities, with the capacity to produce up to 500 million vaccine doses annually.
In response to questions about Moderna's plan, the director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, John Nkengasong, said that he had not been consulted on the decision would welcome any assistance Moderna wished to give over the medium- to long-term. However, he also made clear that Moderna's new plant won't help the country get the vaccine doses that it needs right now.
"Ten countries in Africa have expressed an interest in vaccine manufacturing, (we) can actually bring them all together and put Moderna at the center of that," Nkengasong told Reuters. "That would really speak to the need to be transparent and also ... coordinate our effort."
Currently, Rwanda, Senegal, and South Africa are seen as the most likely candidates for the new plant's location thanks to their existing vaccine production and expertise. Since announcing its plans to build the African plant, Moderna has intensified its selection process, Noubar Afeyan, a biochemical engineer and co-founder of Moderna, told Reuters in an interview. Afeyan confirmed that the three countries mentioned above are on the company's list of potential locations.
"What matters to us most is the conditions under which we could operate. That is, the healthcare system ... the presence of trained folks who can actually at least help us on some of the clinical testing that needs to be done," said Afeyan.
While greater access to high-quality medication and treatments is unarguably a good thing for Africa, Moderna's plans to build a new plant could be seen as a way to avoid waiving intellectual property rights on the COVID-19 vaccine, something which health experts say could help bring an end to the pandemic.
Moderna and other drug makers have faced criticism for refusing to give drug makers in poorer countries access to the information needed to make their own vaccines. Moderna has stated that it won't enforce its patent on its vaccine while the pandemic lasts, but that's not the same as giving drug producers the information they need to make the shot. The massive pharmaceutical company has been in talks with a WHO-affiliated vaccine research organization in South Africa to facilitate handing over that information, but no agreement has been reached.
"The talks have not yielded any results," WHO Initiative for Vaccine Research coordinator Martin Friede told Reuters. "This is not something that we are asking industry to give us for free."
Research hubs like Friede's offer royalties and territorial limitations to their pharmaceutical company partners. Even in cases in which big pharmaceutical companies have agreed to partner with African drug makers, the production of the doses was still done in European plants, meaning African drug makers still aren't able to produce their own vaccines.