The agreement has been hailed by South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa as a milestone in the battle against vaccine inequity.
While wealthy nations look tentatively ahead to a post-pandemic future, fewer than 2 per cent of Africa’s 1.3 billion people have received even one dose of the jab.
Supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine from COVAX, which have made up the bulk of jabs distributed on the continent, ground to a halt after India blocked exports by COVAX’s largest supplier, the Serum Institute, to battle its own outbreak.
“With new variants coming and the likely need for boosters, the capacity on the continent is and will be much needed,” Dr Morena Makhoana, the Biovac Institute’s CEO, told the Evening Standard’s Vaccine for the World project.
“As much as Africa was promised billions of doses mainly from India, the world and mainly Africa has paid the price.”
The deal is to “fill and finish” the vaccine, the final stages of manufacturing where the product is processed, put into vials and shipped.
It will make Biovac the first in Africa to process Covid shots using messenger-RNA technology.
There have been widespread calls to increase Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing in Africa. Right now there are fewer than 10 African manufacturers with any vaccine production capacity, and they are based in just five countries: Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia.
With production not set to start until the second half of 2022, the Biovac deal won’t address the immediate shortfall of vaccines.
Yet the delivery of doses to Africa has slowly started to ramp up. Nearly 12 million doses arrived through COVAX in July, more than the doses received in April, May and June combined.
But the shots did not arrive in time to avert a rise in COVID-19 deaths to a record peak since the onset of the pandemic.
In the future, “Biovac has its own ambition to develop drug substance capability but the first step is to establish mRNA fill-finish,” said Dr Makhoana.