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BioNTech to ship mobile vaccine factories to developing countries

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BioNTech says it's first set of modular vaccine kits will be heading to Africa later this year. Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

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The German company BioNTech, creator of one of the COVID-19 vaccines used here in the U.S., has unveiled a new tool to boost the global COVID vaccination rate: modular factories assembled from shipping containers that produce the mRNA vaccine the company makes with Pfizer. 

Later this year, they’ll be on their way to developing countries. 

The good news is that global COVID vaccine supply and manufacturing capacity are improving, said Krishna Udayakumar, who directs Duke University’s Global Health Innovation Center. 

About 60% of the world’s population has gotten at least one dose. 

“The bad news is the rollout has been incredibly inequitable — so, 10% only of people living in low-income countries have had even one dose of vaccine,” he said.

BioNTech said its first factory kits will be sent to a handful of African countries later this year, and could produce as many as 50 million doses within 12 months. 

Udayakumar said that’s a good start, but BioNTech will need to do more to really help the continent. 

“Ensuring a transfer of the equipment, the technology, that they’re also working on standing up a trained workforce, creating a supply chain,” he said.

African countries produce less than 1% of the vaccines they administer, according to Landry Signe with the Brookings Institution’s Africa Growth Initiative. 

“Africa is almost totally dependent on vaccine imports,” he said.

Those imports have been an issue since long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Signe added. He hopes BioNTech’s plan boosts long-term manufacturing capacity in Africa. 

“Solving the urgent COVID-19 vaccine deficit in Africa is an extremely important step to solving the broader vaccine crisis on the continent,” he said.

But not everyone sees it that way. 

“The kits are a Band-Aid,” said Preethi Krishtel with the nonprofit Initiative for Medicines, Access and Knowledge. “Approaches like this ensure that control stays with the manufacturers like BioNTech acting on their own terms. It’s not equitable, it’s not sustainable.”

Krishtel said if that company and others making mRNA vaccines were serious about equity, they’d suspend their patents and allow rival companies to make their vaccines.  

BioNTech didn’t respond to a request for an interview. 

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