The location; one of the hills in the special economic zones overlooking the city of Kigali which seemed quite a distance. The kind of panoramic landscape which only nature bestows on a city. As the air was breezing, the nine flags of African Union, Germany, South Africa, Ghana, Rwanda, BioNTech, Senegal, World Health Organisation and the European Union were fluttering not only to the breezing of the air but also to the tunes of Africa’s Wolof and afrobeat music. All this took place way before the main event commenced.
The event which took place on Thursday, 23rd of June 2022 was the groundbreaking ceremony for BioNTech’s first African modular mRNA manufacturing facility in Rwanda, and the location was inside the Kigali Special Economic Zone (KSZE) in Gasabo district in Kigali. And there was a plethora of guests within and outside the African Continent who graced the momentous occasion.
The German master of ceremony opened the ceremony with these words: “Today is indeed an historic day. In nine months, the factory would be ready. Your Excellency makes the impossible; work.”
Professor Ugur Sahin, M.D., Founder and CEO of BioNTech commenced proceedings with a brisk speech in which he stated that; “We feel really blessed and honoured to be here and to do all this together. It is a transformative innovation and committed to bringing our innovations to those who need them. There are challenges but cannot be addressed by one single party. These potential vaccines and other life changing vaccines must be produced in Africa and we would work together with locals to establish the factory and pass on the know-how to locals too as we are discussing with partners in Rwanda for the gradual transfer of knowledge to local hands. The manufacturing of vaccines won’t be only focused on covid19 production and also the factories in Africa would be fully digitalized. Factories would help us to be better prepared for future pandemics.”
We have reached the next milestone with the construction start of the first African mRNA manufacturing facility based on our BioNTainers; just a little under four months after we introduced the BioNTainer concept in February 2022.” He continued; “This factory will be the first in an African network to provide sustainable production capacity for mRNA pharmaceuticals. Further manufacturing facilities in Africa and on other continents are planned to follow. The goal we pursue together with governments and regulatory authorities is to produce vaccines for Africa here with highly skilled professionals from Africa. Thank you AU, Africa CDC, EU and the Republic of Rwanda for making things happen at the speed of light.”
President Paul Kagame of Rwanda was next and he began his speech thus; “Thank you Mr Ugur for BioNTech commitment to Africa. The groundbreaking for BioNTech’s state-of-the-art mRNA production facility is a pivotal milestone and monumental. We are happy to have BioNTech as a partner and I applaud the company’s commitment to working with Africa on a continental basis to help secure our vaccine resilience for the future, and invest in new research to address the endemic diseases that disproportionately affect our people. Rwanda intends to build on this investment by attracting other partners. Rwanda is working with IFC and European Investment Bank to put in place the required support. Working with our partners, Rwanda intends to build on this investment to attract a vibrant biopharmaceutical research and manufacturing sector.”
The President went further to state that; “Rwanda wholeheartedly supports BioNTech’s commitment to power this factory entirely with green energy and we will work in unison to achieve this objective. The land we are standing on, is dedicated to biopharma manufacturing. Construction would be completed in two years, with the delivery of first container modules planned for the tail end of 2022.”
President Kagame further stated: “Vaccine manufacturing requires highly skilled hands. Working together with existing partners like BioNTech and other institutions. This institute would provide the necessary academic experience to make the required skilled workforce possible. This facility is one of three identical sites planned by BioNTech, and other facilities would be situated in Senegal and South Africa. And a huge thank you to everyone who has played a critical role in getting us to this point. This is just the start, but a big start.”
President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana went thus: “When we met in Marburg in Germany some four months ago, there were some who secretly doubted our collective resolve to bring this all-important project, which will boost Africa’s capacity to be self-reliant in the production of vaccines, to fruition. I am happy we have, with today’s event, been able to confound these doubting Thomases. I am grateful to my senior and good friend, the redoubtable President of the Republic of Rwanda, His Excellency Paul Kagame, for inviting me to participate in this ground-breaking ceremony, and to signal to the rest of the world the commencement of this end-to-end vaccine manufacturing facility, involving Rwanda, Senegal and my own country of Ghana. Financing for the entity is being provided by a consortium of financial institutions, led by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), of which the European Investment Bank (EIB) is an important member. Their support is a welcome expression of confidence in the viability of the Project.”
President Akufo-Addo went further “The import of this Pan-African Project is that we have to work together. That is why, tomorrow (Friday), 24th June, the ties of co-operation that exist between the Food and Drugs Authorities (FDA) of Ghana and Rwanda will be deepened even further with the signing of a new Memorandum of Understanding. Through this, FDA Ghana, which achieved WHO (World Health Organisation) Global Benchmarking Maturity Level Three in 2020, and is working hard to achieve Maturity Level Four by the end of this year (2022), will assist FDA Rwanda to attain WHO Maturity Level Three as soon as possible. Both agencies will collaborate further in vaccine drug product manufacturing, fill, finish and lot release in their respective countries. Again, collaboration between our two countries resulted recently in a team from Rwanda visiting research institutions in Ghana, with the aim of strengthening institutional development and partnership towards vaccine discovery and advancement.”
Ghana’s President continued: “As I said in Marburg, the Pan-African Vaccine Manufacturing Project fits perfectly with Ghana’s roadmap for domestic vaccine development and manufacturing. Ghana is ready to play her role, and I reaffirm, once again, her determination to make the Project work successfully. Ghana’s research institutions are undergoing capacity-building to be ready for the discovery and development of vaccines and other biologicals, and a consortium of Ghanaian pharmaceutical companies, led by DEKS Vaccines Ltd., is working closely with BioNTech Rwanda, BioNTech Germany and kENUP to fill, finish and package the drug product in Ghana from the plant here in Rwanda. I express great appreciation to BioNTech of Germany, kENUP Foundation of Malta, IFC, EIB and the other financial institutions, once again, for working closely together with African countries to enable the continent achieve vaccine self-sufficiency, and I assure all and sundry that Ghana is delighted to be part of this Pan-African Project to manufacture mRNA COVID, Malaria and TB vaccines from drug substance through drug product to fill, finish and package. May God bless Mother Africa, and us all.”
Foreign Affairs Minister of Senegal, Honorable Aissata Tall Sall representing President Macky Sall of Senegal was equivocal in her remarks stating that; “I welcome and support the investment that BioNTech plans to make in Senegal for the production of vaccines, to be followed by the operationalization of its partnership with Institut Pasteur in Dakar. We look forward to welcoming you to the new city of Diamniadio.” Foreign Affiars Minister Aissata Tall Sall extolled the leadership of the Presidents of Ghana, Rwanda, South Africa for making the realisation of the factory on the continent possible.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany via video link stated that; “Vaccines can make the difference between life and death. and if BoiNTech projects are realized, Africa would be better for it. Today, an essential foundation is being laid for more people to benefit from the blessing of vaccines in the future. And if BioNTech’s projects are realised, Africa’s supply of urgently needed vaccines will improve significantly. Not only vaccines against COVID19, but ultimately also vaccines against malaria, tuberculosis, HIV. An essential foundation is also being laid for Africa to be better prepared for the next virus pandemic. We have said and heard it many times before: a pandemic can only end when all people have access to vaccines. Today, we are putting those words into action. The BioNTainers will take the world one large step closer to vaccine equity. Also, this co-operation between African states and a German company, supported by the African Union, by the European Union and by the World Health Organisation proves how our two neighbouring continents benefit from mutual cooperation.”
Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany ended by stating that; “A pandemic can only end when everyone has access to vaccines. This cooperation between African states and a German firm indicates that the opportunities are possible and plenty.”
On her part, President von der Leyen of the European Commission, also via video link stated that; “Four months after the meeting in Germany, we are laying the groundbreaking ceremony. This won’t be possible without our mutual focus. Pan African value chain for pharmaceutical products on the African Continent. We have approved the sum of a 1 billion euros to transfer skills and the know-how on the continent. Africans and Europeans are rolling up their sleeves together to make this possible and we want to partner with Africa on projects like this one. This is a milestone as it represents the immense potential of collaborations between Africa and the European Union. The facility in Rwanda is a result of the African Union’s decision in 2021 to take action on vaccine inequality and it will go a long way in addressing the vaccine challenges the continent faces.”
President von der Leyen further stated that; “Today, we are laying the foundations for the first mRNA vaccine production facility in Africa, in Kigali. We are turning a simple but ground-breaking idea into reality and in record time. The ‘Vaccine Equity for Africa’ project is a milestone, not only in the fight against COVID19. Our partnership will bring vaccine manufacturing in Africa to the next level.”
Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, of the African Union Commission stated that: “Today makes a new vital milestone in our common journey to make vaccine equality a reality. I commend the countries working with BioNtech, Ghana, Rwanda, Senegal and South Africa for taking quick initiatives to make this happen. It is of paramount importance that this initiative is pan African and continues to be.”
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization commenced by stating that: “Science is only a tool and it is only as good as the hands that use it. The pandemic has exposed the inadequacies of the world. We talk about the world not being left behind, but during the last two years, we have seen that the African countries were left behind. Today’s groundbreaking is so important. The best way to deal with inequality is to give the vaccine to those who need them. Collaborative work to accelerate the manufacturing vaccines is critical for the African continent. WHO is committed with partners on the continent to build capacity and resilience.”
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus went further; “The COVID19 pandemic has exposed the need for significantly greater local production of vaccines and other essential products in all regions of the world, especially in Africa which relies heavily on imported products and was left behind in the global rush for COVID19 vaccines. I welcome BioNTech’s efforts to establish manufacturing sites in Rwanda, Senegal and South Africa, as well as its plans to commence clinical trials of its malaria vaccine candidates later this year.”