Rwanda aims to forge vaccine production hub under BioNTech deal

Rwanda’s health sector has been hailed for its resilience in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, including the effective deployment of vaccines and virus suppression measures.

By mid-February, nearly 7 million Rwandans had been fully vaccinated against the virus. At 53.7% of the population, this is one of the highest rates in Africa and the developing world.

Centralized leadership and a coordinated strategy based on the latest data have been rewarded with broad public compliance with strict virus suppression measures. The capacity of intensive care units in provincial capitals has been significantly expanded to prevent Kigali from being overwhelmed, which has helped prevent the spread of the disease and increased survival rates through faster administration of treatment.

The production and distribution of oxygen have been accelerated to cover domestic needs. The country has officially reported 1,450 deaths out of just under 130,000 cases.

Much of the response has relied on the country’s existing community health system, which ensures access to basic health care and counseling at village level across the country through a network of health facilities. health.

“Having trained people who can give practical advice at the community level has prevented the health system from being overwhelmed with minor or asymptomatic cases, which has allowed resources to be focused on severe cases. “, explains Dr. Daniel Ngamije, Rwandan Minister of Health.

This system has been strengthened by investments – including $150 million from the World Bank – in testing, tracing and vaccination capacities.

Vaccine production plans

Rwanda now hopes to build on this progress by becoming a vaccine production hub in Africa. BioNTech’s choice of Rwanda and Senegal as manufacturing and distribution centers represents the most serious effort yet to address glaring global inequalities in access to vaccines.

Left to right: Ugur Sahin, co-founder and CEO of German biotech company BioNTech; President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen; Rwandan President Paul Kagame; and President of Senegal Macky Sall at a Vaccine Equity for Africa event in Berlin. (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

The German company’s partially prefabricated “containerized” labs are scheduled for installation in July 2022 and are expected to cut construction time by around 12 months. The first vaccines produced on Rwandan soil should leave the production lines 24 months later.

“It takes international solidarity to enable the transfer of knowledge, skills and facilities, but that is exactly what BioNTech does for us,” the Minister said.

Ownership and operation will be gradually transferred from BioNTech personnel to Rwandan management. BioNTech expects its Rwanda-Senegal “production line” to have the initial capacity to produce 50 million doses of vaccine per year.

But although BioNTech is best known for its revolutionary messenger RNA (MRNA) Covid-19 vaccine, the importance of its two new African manufacturing hubs will most likely survive the current pandemic. At the time of writing, attention was already turning to the perennial scourges of the African continent, such as malaria and tuberculosis.

“Mastering next-generation mRNA technology is essential for fighting many diseases because they are highly efficient and can be scaled up quickly,” says Dr. Ngamije.

Clare Akamanzi, CEO of the Rwanda Development Board, has an eye on how this development fits into the country’s broader ambitions to become a center of scientific excellence and innovation.

“The idea is not just to produce Covid vaccines, but vaccines against other diseases that exist across Africa,” she says. “The agreement with BioNTech represents an opportunity to enhance the skills of our staff and produce the level of scientists that this type of facility depends on.”

Boosting investment in health

The provision of healthcare, not only as a right of Rwandan citizens, but also as an opportunity for private investment, is high on the government’s list of priorities as it emerges from the Covid pandemic. -19 and prepares to meet the goals of Vision 2050, the country’s ambitious plan to achieve high-income status by mid-century.

“The pandemic has shown the value of investing in a healthy population and specialist doctors,” says Dr Ngamije.

This same system is largely responsible for increasing life expectancy from 49 years in 2000 to 66.6 years in 2017, and lowering maternal and child mortality by 80% and 70%, respectively. between 2000 and 2014.

Access and administration are further improved by the digitization of health services, while the government is also trying to ensure that Rwandans are able to pay for health services through a community health insurance scheme.

Other research and investment priorities include cancer research and cardiac operations, for which dedicated facilities have been built amid the pandemic. Specializations in imaging solutions, diagnostics, pharmaceutical production, medical technology and radiology are priority investment areas.

Dr. Ngamije is particularly dedicated to improving access to cancer treatment through investments in nuclear medicine and radiotherapy, which are rare in the region.

“We aim to have this capability by 2023, which will be only the second of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa, along with that of South Africa,” he said.

Private clinics have proliferated and grown during the pandemic and the goal is to integrate them into an advanced medical ecosystem.

Drone-based delivery services

One of the most eye-catching partnerships to emerge is between the Rwandan government and California-based drone company Zipline.

In 2016, Zipline approached Rwanda to use it as a proof-of-concept site for a drone-based delivery system that was uniquely suited to Rwanda’s geography and the needs of its health sector. Working from two distribution centers, Zipline makes 5,000 deliveries of medical supplies to 375 healthcare facilities per month.

“Since blood can be transported from the warehouse to anywhere in the country in less than 30 minutes, the Zipline system has reduced the amount of expired blood by 50%,” explains the Minister.

Zipline has since exported its concept to Ghana and the United States, with plans to expand to Nigeria, India and the Philippines.

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