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A BioNTech mobile vaccine factory is pictured

A "BioNTainer" stands in a production hall of the pharmaceutical company BioNTech in Marburg, Germany on February 11, 2022. (Photo: Boris Roessler/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

BioNTech's Mobile Vaccine Factories for Africa Denounced as 'Neo-Colonial Stunt'

"With South Africa's vaccine hub already having success in reverse-engineering the Moderna vaccine, this looks like a last-ditch attempt to make sure mRNA technology remains in Western hands," said one critic.

Jake Johnson

Public health campaigners on Wednesday accused the German pharmaceutical firm BioNTech of pulling a "neo-colonial stunt" after it announced plans to send mobile coronavirus vaccine factories made from shipping containers to Africa—a move that critics say will allow the company to secure its stranglehold on vaccine production and technology.

In a press release, BioNTech—Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine partner—said it expects to ship its first so-called "BioNTainer" to Africa in the second half of 2022, but the company added that production in the facilities won't begin until "approximately 12 months after the delivery of the modules to its final location in Africa."

"This is inexcusable when we know there are several factories in Africa with the capacity to create these kinds of vaccines today."

The first containers are expected to go to Rwanda, Senegal, and "potentially" South Africa, said BioNTech, which received substantial funding from the German government to develop its coronavirus shot.

Vaccine equity advocates were quick to voice deep skepticism of the new mobile factory scheme, which was announced in collaboration with the European Commission, the African Union, and the kENUP Foundation, a BioNTech-hired firm that has reportedly been trying to undermine South African scientists' promising efforts to replicate Moderna's coronavirus vaccine.

Fatima Hassan, founder of the South Africa-based Health Justice Initiative, dubbed BioNTech's pop-up facility a "colonial-tainer" and argued that the project sidesteps more urgent and genuine solutions, such as transferring vaccine technology directly to South African scientists.

"Share the tech with the South African World Health Organization mRNA hub immediately," Hassan tweeted Wednesday. "For goodness sake."

Tim Bierley, pharma campaigner at the U.K.-based advocacy group Global Justice Now, echoed that message, arguing in a statement that the BioNTainers are clearly part of an attempt to "maintain control of this lifesaving technology in Africa."

"Under the first phase of the plan, BioNTech will use European staff to manage their 'shipping containers,' while local producers are relegated to putting the vaccines into bottles," Bierley noted. "Any possibility of knowledge transfer is pushed off far into the future. This is inexcusable when we know there are several factories in Africa with the capacity to create these kinds of vaccines today, if BioNTech and others were willing to share the tech in this global emergency."

"With South Africa's vaccine hub already having success in reverse-engineering the Moderna vaccine, this looks like a last-ditch attempt to make sure mRNA technology remains in Western hands as long as possible," Bierley continued. "You would struggle to do less to support local vaccine production in Africa while still technically making some vaccines in Africa."

BioNTech, which has come under fire for delivering far more of its vaccine supply to rich countries than to developing nations, said Wednesday that its modular factories have the initial capacity to produce up to 50 million mRNA-based vaccine doses a year.

One recent analysis estimated that 1.2 billion people on the African continent have yet to receive a single coronavirus vaccine dose.

BioNTech's official unveiling of its container factories comes as African leaders are engaged in a tense fight with Germany and other European countries over a proposed patent waiver, which proponents say would help low-income nations produce generic coronavirus vaccines without fear of legal retribution.

The African Union has endorsed the patent waiver while powerful European Union countries have opposed it, keeping the proposal bottled up at the World Trade Organization.

Anna Marriott, health policy manager at Oxfam International, said in a statement Wednesday that "efforts to boost vaccine manufacturing in Africa are welcome," but the mobile factories are "a long-term project and should not distract from the failure of rich country governments and companies, including Germany and BioNTech, to tackle today's shameful vaccine inequality responsible for millions of needless deaths in poorer countries."

"To date, Germany has exported just 1% of its vaccines to the African continent," Marriott added. "If Germany is serious about tackling vaccine inequality, it must reverse its refusal to support the waiving of intellectual property rules for these lifesaving pandemic tools and insist BioNTech transfer their technology now to the World Health Organisation so that existing manufacturers across Africa, Latin America, and Asia can make them."

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