Low demand for jabs threatens Cape Town Covid-19 vaccine production plant

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LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - (Photo by Dinendra Haria/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - (Photo by Dinendra Haria/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Plans to produce Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine in Cape Town may be scaled back because of waning demand for the shots, according to the head of the company’s South African manufacturing partner.  

About 100 million doses a year are slated to be packaged and filled at a plant controlled by the BioVac Institute, partly owned by the South African government, which would become the first Southern Hemisphere facility to use the messenger RNA technology underlying the Pfizer-BioNTech version. 

Yet demand for Covid-19 vaccines has fallen globally as countries start to adapt to the pandemic — even in Africa where vaccination rates are lowest. Aspen Pharmacare Holdings Ltd., the continent’s biggest drugmaker, said this month that it may close a line to make Johnson & Johnson’s dose in South Africa due to a lack of orders. 

“As a manufacturer we are concerned about the picture that’s coming through,” Biovac Chief Executive Officer Morena Makhoana said in an interview. “At the rate things are going it will probably be less” than 100 million doses a year. 

Biovac has spent about 300 million rand ($19 million) preparing to make mRNA vaccines and install equipment to keep doses at ultra-cold temperatures. Those upgrades could still be adapted for other shots.

“Certainly for Biovac it’s a big project,” Makhoana said. “Volume wise it’s a step change.”

Biovac is currently processing about 4 million doses a year of a pediatric vaccine in South Africa for Sanofi Pasteur and 3 million doses of Pfizer’s Prevnar 13 vaccine, a shot given to children to protect against types of pneumococcal bacteria that can cause serious infections.

“It is becoming increasingly recognised that vaccine supply is no longer the primary challenge impacting vaccinating lower and middle-income nations,” Pfizer said in a response to questions. “Country readiness is critical is ensuring that a nation is able to effectively receive, transport and administer the vaccine doses as they arrive.”

Makhoana is hopeful that there will be more demand for Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine in Africa than for rivals such as the J&J inoculation, especially as Pfizer is seeking to get the dose authorised for children as young as five.


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