Expanding COVID-19 vaccine production in Africa

Men in protective gear looking at machine and vials ((© Lulama Zenzile/Die Burger/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
U.S. investment supports South African firm Aspen Pharmacare’s vaccine production (above). U.S. producer Moderna plans to build a vaccine manufacturing facility in Africa. (© Lulama Zenzile/Die Burger/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

The United States and its partners already have donated more than 50 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to African nations. Now a U.S. pharmaceutical firm plans to build a factory in Africa to produce up to 500 million doses annually, dramatically expanding local vaccine production on the continent.

Moderna will invest up to $500 million in a state-of-the-art facility to produce messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines to combat COVID-19, according to Stéphane Bancel, chief executive officer of the company, which is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“We believe it is important to invest in the future,” Bancel said October 7. “We expect to manufacture our COVID-19 vaccine as well as additional products within our mRNA vaccine portfolio at this facility.”

Dr. John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), welcomed plans for the facility. Only 5% of the eligible population in Africa are fully vaccinated, while 6% have received one dose. “The problem we have to solve today is access — quick access to vaccines,” he said October 7.

Moderna has not yet selected a location for the new facility, though company officials have cited Rwanda, Senegal and South Africa as possible sites.

Vials and syringes of coronavirus vaccine in front of South African flag (© Dado Ruvic/Reuters)
A South African firm is manufacturing Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, thanks in part to the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation. (© Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

President Biden has said the U.S. government is working with pharmaceutical firms to expand production of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines in their own countries.

Moderna developed its mRNA COVID-19 vaccine in partnership with the U.S. National Institutes of Health. That partnership is beginning clinical trials on an mRNA vaccine against HIV/AIDS, which affects more than 37 million people worldwide.

The Moderna factory is just one of the U.S.-backed vaccine manufacturing initiatives in Africa.

In partnership with France and Germany, the U.S. government in June announced a 600 million euro investment enabling the South African firm Aspen Pharmacare Holdings Limited to produce Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The U.S. government, along with African and European development partners, also aids the Institut Pasteur de Dakar to increase production of vaccines in Senegal.

Recent investments build on the more than $100 billion the United States has invested to strengthen health security in sub-Saharan Africa over the past 20 years. U.S. investment through the Global Health Security Agenda (PDF, 6MB) enabled Africa CDC to expand COVID-19 testing capacity from three African nations in the early stages of the pandemic to 49 by mid–2021.

Meanwhile, the United States continues to ship vaccine doses around the world. On October 14, Biden announced a new donation of 17 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine to the African Union. These follow the more than 50 million doses previously provided to African Union member states.

“I promise you, the United States will continue to lead,” Biden has said. “We’ll continue to drive historic commitments in vaccine donations — 1.1 billion and counting — so we can defeat COVID-19 together.”