After facing sharp criticism for selling its COVID-19 vaccines mainly to wealthy countries, US vaccine maker Moderna has announced plans to build an African factory that would manufacture up to half a billion doses annually.
Moderna says it will invest up to US$500 million in the factory, but has not yet selected a site or even a country in Africa. The facility is expected to take two to four years to build and approve, leaving it unable to help with the current massive global shortage of vaccines.
The company said it expects to “soon begin a process for country and site selection.” This factory will be able to produce vaccines other than the COVID-19 vaccine, it said.
Vaccines are in dire need across Africa, the region with the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate in the world. Less than 5 percent of Africans are fully vaccinated, even though surplus doses are still coming in in wealthy countries with high vaccination rates.
According to the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, there has been a “terrible disparity” in the distribution of vaccines.
While high-income and upper-middle-income countries have used 75 percent of all vaccines so far, low-income countries have received less than 1 percent of the world’s doses, he told a media briefing on Thursday.
“We are on the verge of failure if we don’t make the benefits of science available to all people in all countries now,” he said.
“We are determined to increase Moderna’s social impact through investments in a state-of-the-art mRNA manufacturing facility in Africa,” Moderna’s chief executive officer, Stefan Bansel, said in a statement on Thursday.
Critics say Moderna should do more to share its vaccine technology with poorer countries because its cost was heavily subsidized by US taxpayers. By some estimates, it has received over US$8 billion in public funding from the US government, including research and development funding and supply contracts.
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In January 2020, Moderna accepted a research grant from a non-profit organization with the promise that it would adhere to “equal access principles” – making its vaccine available at an affordable cost in low-income countries. But so far it has sold an estimated 85 percent of its vaccines to Canada, the United States and several wealthy countries in Europe.
In May, the company pledged to supply up to 500 million doses of its vaccine to the nonprofit COVAX program, the main source of supply for low-income countries. But only a small fraction – 34 million doses – are scheduled to be delivered to COVAX by the end of this year, while the bulk will be delivered next year.
And even those promises are not guaranteed. “Dangerously, most manufacturers supplying COVAX have repeatedly downgraded the timelines for delivering their estimated volumes to the COVAX facility,” the WHO said in a vaccine-strategy document released on Thursday.
John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Moderna’s announcement was welcome news, but would only be useful in the medium and long term. “It doesn’t necessarily solve our problems today,” he told a media briefing on Thursday.
“The problems we have to solve today are quick access to vaccines, redistribution of vaccines, ensuring that certain licenses are granted so that manufacturing can start regionally.”
Public Citizen, a US-based consumer-advocacy group, said Moderna’s promise to build a factory in Africa today does not excuse its failure to share its technology or sufficient doses of its vaccine.
Peter Mebarduk, director of Public Citizen’s access-to-medicine program, said, “Moderna has secreted a vaccine recipe that humanity needs, a vaccine developed significantly by public science and has been largely used by billions of people.” developed by.”
He said in a statement that there are early signs that Moderna will try to maintain its monopoly power over its African factory and its vaccine technology.
WHO is trying to develop a vaccine technology center in South Africa as an African production base. The hub is aiming to replicate Moderna’s vaccine, but plans have been put on hold because so far the WHO has been unable to reach an agreement on technology sharing with the US company.
While low-income countries grapple with acute shortages of vaccines, an estimated 870 million additional doses are expected to pile up in rich countries by the end of this year, including 62 million in Canada, according to a Thursday report. is in accordance. Médecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).
The report says that the hoarding of vaccines by rich countries is putting millions of people at risk of dying. It called on Canada and other countries to take immediate steps to redistribute their vaccines – a move that could prevent nearly one million deaths by mid-2222 alone.
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