Moderna said that it plans to build an mRNA facility in Africa. The $500 million facility is expected to include active ingredient production for vaccines targeting respiratory and other viral diseases, including COVID-19. The company’s objective is for the facility to produce 500 million vaccine doses annually at a 50 µg dose level.
The biotech company says it has not yet selected a site for the plant.
The announcement comes amid concern over access to vaccines in Africa and the continent’s low rate of COVID-19 vaccination. According to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (ACDC), just 4.6% of the continent’s population is currently fully vaccinated.
Moderna, a pioneer in mRNA technology, has been ramping up production of its COVID-19 vaccine. In May, it announced an expansion plan to double the size of its plant in Norwood, Massachusetts..
And in August, the company announced an agreement with the Canadian government to build an mRNA vaccine plant at an unspecified location in Canada. The pact was billed as the first of several similar partnerships with countries around the world.
Currently, the bulk of the vaccine doses that Moderna has provided, as one of a handful of COVID-19 vaccine suppliers, are manufactured by contract service companies, notably Lonza, which makes the vaccine at plants in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Visp, Switzerland. The plant in Africa would mark a significant step for Moderna toward the in-house manufacturing of the vaccine. According to Moderna, the plant would also have the capacity to add fill-and-finish manufacturing.
The project would mark a significant advance for Africa, where several efforts are under way to establish vaccine production across the continent. Earlier this year, the Partnerships for African Vaccine Manufacturing was established as an mRNA technology-transfer hub to train local manufacturers in the development of COVID-19 vaccines. Separately, Pfizer and its vaccine partner, BioNTech, announced a deal with the Biovac Institute, a state-backed vaccine manufacturer in South Africa, by which Biovac will provide fill-and-finish services for vaccines that will be distributed within the African Union.
But critics are calling for more, asking vaccine makers to offer their mRNA technology more freely to local companies in underserved regions. And African authorities emphasize that planned production does not meet immediate needs for COVID-19 vaccines.
“The problems we have are quick access to vaccines, redistribution of vaccines, and making sure that certain licenses are provided so that manufacturing can start regionally,” John Nkengasong, the director of the ACDC, said at a news briefing on Thursday.
James Bruno, head of the consulting firm Chemical and Pharmaceutical Solutions, is skeptical that a major vaccine-production venture will succeed in the region, given past failed attempts to bring drug manufacturing projects to countries without a tradition of drug production.
“Do I think it’s a bad idea? No,” he says. “You need to raise awareness in the region of all the things they need to do. But Africa is really behind. It is going to be a long, drawn-out process.” He says the emphasis should be on shifting vaccine supply from regions where vaccination rates are higher to Africa and other regions short of supply. “In most of the countries in Africa, what they need is vaccines right now, not in 2 to 4 years,” Bruno says.
Another US consultant, Peter Bigelow of xCell Strategic Consulting, views Moderna’s plan as a positive step in the long run. “The African continent is underserved for vaccines and many other therapeutics,” he says. “There is currently very little manufacturing that occurs in Africa. I think it’s a brilliant move.”
This story was updated on Oct. 11, 2021, to correct the name of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. It is not the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.