Self-sufficient Africa: Rwanda gets continent’s first unit for mRNA vaccine production

Containers of mRNA mobile factories called Biontainers to boost African vaccine production

By Christophe Hitayezu
Published: Wednesday 15 March 2023
Rwanda received six containers of mRNA factories called Biontainers on March 13, 2023. Photo: @PaulKagame / Twitter

Rwanda is now the first in Africa to have an mRNA vaccine production facility. It received six containers of mRNA mobile factories called Biontainers on March 13, 2023 developed by the German pharmaceutical company BioNTech. 

Messenger Ribonucleic acid (mRNA) is a type of RNA that is necessary for protein production. mRNA vaccines work by introducing a piece that corresponds to a viral protein.

The facility takes up about 800 square metres of space and can produce up to 50 million doses per year, according to Rwanda’s Ministry of Health. It will help conduct trials on new therapeutics for malaria, tuberculosis, HIV and cancers, among other infectious diseases.

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The facility is an important milestone not only for Rwanda but also for Africa, which contributes only 2 per cent of clinical trial research output, the health ministry posted on the social networking site Twitter.

“With this mRNA production capacity, we expect a significant increase in the continent’s contribution to global science and pandemic preparedness,” the tweet reads.

“Historic milestone today as the first BioNTech BioNTainers arrived in Rwanda, exactly three years since the first case of Covid-19 was detected in our country. This system will allow end-to-end mRNA vaccine production in Africa for the first time,” said Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame in a tweet posted on March 13, 2023.

The advancement comes at a time when Africa only produces one per cent of the vaccines it uses, relying on other nations for the rest. The COVID-19 outbreak exposed the gap even more when wealthier countries got their citizens the vaccines first while Africans were left behind.

The BioNTainers are expected to commence manufacturing vaccines before this year ends and will improve vaccine access, Julien Mahoro Niyingabira, division manager for Rwanda Health Communication Centre.

“If a production facility was close by, we shouldn’t have experienced a scarcity if major suppliers like India were to halt vaccine exports as they did during COVID-19,” he told the author.

However, the timeline for further shipments is still undetermined, Niyingabira said. A BioNTech modular factory consists of two modules, each made from six containers. In the first module, which landed in Kigali, mRNA is produced and purified. In the second, it is made into a vaccine.

Read more: Results from Novavax vaccine trials in the UK and South Africa differ: why, and does it matter?

BioNTech’s aim is to build two BioNtainers in Kigali before shipping others to Senegal and South Africa, said Chief Operating Officer at BioNTech Sierk Poetting. These factories won’t just be used to make Covid-19 vaccines, he indicated.

The firm anticipates that any mRNA vaccines produced at the plant will either be used locally or exported to other African Union countries at a not-for-profit rate, he further said.

Director General of World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Ghebreyesus congratulated Rwanda on the shipment of containers of the first BioNTainer facilities equipped to manufacture a range of mRNA-based vaccines.

In February last year, BioNTech presented a prototype of one six-container module to the presidents of Senegal, Ghana and Rwanda and other dignitaries, including the WHO Director General and the German development minister, at its main vaccine production site in Marburg, Germany.

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