Biotechnology company Moderna, under intense pressure to send more of its coronavirus vaccine to lower-income countries, announced Thursday it would build a manufacturing plant in Africa capable of producing 500 million doses of messenger RNA vaccines a year.
For months, the U.S. government has pleaded with Moderna to boost its domestic and international production so it can ramp up donations to low- and middle-income countries. But in two meetings during the last week, Biden administration officials have grown exasperated over the biotechnology company’s refusal to commit to doing so, the people said.
One senior U.S. official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said the government pushed Moderna to commit to 1 billion doses for low- and middle-income countries by the end of 2022. But Moderna responded with a proposal that did not meet the Biden administration’s expectations, as the company said it does not have the capacity to ramp up production immediately.
The manufacturing facility Moderna pledged on Thursday to build in Africa will not have an immediate impact on the coronavirus pandemic because it will take two to four years to build. The new facility comes after the Biden administration asked Moderna months ago to boost its international production in Africa, the U.S. official said.
The Biden administration’s frustration with Moderna in recent months stems in part from the recognition that the company partnered with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to invent its vaccine, and that the U.S. government gave Moderna billions of taxpayer dollars to underwrite research and development of the vaccines, and for purchase of doses.
“We look forward to seeing exactly what they will do,” the senior Biden administration official said. “We are in intense discussions to expand capacity to increase the number of doses they are providing to low- and middle-income countries in the shorter term.”
U.S. officials feel the company has not done enough to boost production to send doses overseas, and instead, prioritized its own profits.
The White House declined to comment.
Moderna did not immediately respond to a request for comment about tensions with the Biden administration.
Just this week, three people associated with Moderna were among the 44 new billionaires on Forbes’s list of the 400 richest Americans. Making their debut on this year’s list: Moderna’s chairman, Noubar Afeyan, one of the U.S. biotech company’s founders; board member Robert S. Langer, also a co-founder; and early investor Timothy A. Springer.
“We played a lot of scenarios over the last couple of months and decided we should do something big in Africa. The only way to do it right, if you take a 5-to-10-year view, was to build our own plant like we’ve done in America, so that’s exactly the model,” Moderna chief executive Stéphane Bancel said in an interview.
Creating manufacturing capabilities in underserved areas of the world has become a major goal for public health advocates amid stark inequities in global access to coronavirus vaccines. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation analysis found that nearly two-thirds of people in wealthy countries have received at least one dose of a vaccine, compared with 2 percent in low-income countries.
The United States has already committed to donating more than 1.1 billion doses of coronavirus vaccine to the world, including two purchases of 500 million doses each of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Last month, President Biden convened a virtual global summit focused on vaccinating the world’s population. The president called on global leaders to fully vaccinate 70 percent of the world’s population by next September.
“This is an all-hands-on-deck crisis,” Biden said. “And the good news is, we know how to beat this pandemic: vaccines, public health measures and collective action.”
Moving manufacturing into less-wealthy countries is one possible solution to the lack of global supply, but many advocates favor transferring the technology to local companies to ensure that countries have the ability to respond to new threats, and to ensure their doses do not end up exported elsewhere in the world.
“There’s this monopolistic grip of a few countries that really controls the narrative, and the availability and the access of lifesaving medical resources — and there’s enormous global resentment about that,” said Lawrence O. Gostin, a global health law expert at Georgetown Law. “Donations always seem to come too late, and be insufficient. … Opening up manufacturing plants in other countries is certainly a step forward, but it doesn’t really change the dynamic.”
Bancel said the company has not decided where the factory will be, but that the doses made there would remain in Africa, and Moderna would recruit and train a local workforce. He said the factory would manufacture the mRNA that goes into the vaccines and encase it in the protective lipid bubble that delivers the vaccine and keeps it stable. He said details were still being worked out about where the vaccines would go into vials.
Moderna has a large pipeline of mRNA vaccines in development beyond covid-19, including to protect against respiratory viruses, tropical viruses and HIV.
“We really want to get all the know-how and so on in Africa, so they can make vaccines, if there is an Ebola outbreak, they can use the plant for things like that,” Bancel said.
Gostin said building plants in lower-income countries was a step forward but emphasized that local control, ownership and expertise matters. He drew a comparison to China’s “belt and road initiative” in which the Chinese government built infrastructure in other countries.
“It’s helpful to have the shiny hospital or the shiny manufacturing plant or the shiny clinic, but what you really want is to have the infrastructure that belongs to the country, with trained, capable people running that infrastructure,” Gostin said.
Other efforts to create homegrown mRNA vaccines are already taking place.
University of Pennsylvania researcher Drew Weissman, one of the scientists whose work undergirds the coronavirus vaccines, has worked with Thailand to help design a mRNA vaccine.
GreenLight Biosciences, a start-up company that has been making RNA for agricultural applications, is working toward making mRNA vaccines with a different manufacturing process that could be easier to scale up. GreenLight plans to launch a clinical trial in Africa next year.
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