Senegal could begin producing COVID-19 vaccines next year under an agreement with Belgian biotech group Univercells aimed at boosting Africa’s drug-manufacturing ambitions, a source involved in funding the project told Reuters.
As wealthy countries begin to reopen after securing vaccine supplies early, African nations are still struggling to acquire shots. On a continent of 1.3 billion, only about 7 million have been fully vaccinated.
The collaboration highlights the opportunities created by a global push to channel money and technology towards production on a continent that makes only 1% of the vaccines it requires.
Univercells announced the signing of a letter of intent for collaboration with the Institut Pasteur in Senegal’s capital Dakar in April. The source shared details of the proposal, which were not made public.
Under the agreement, the Institut Pasteur would use vaccine production technology developed by Univercells to supply COVID-19 vaccine shots to countries across West Africa.
The institute would initially begin packaging and distributing vaccines produced by Univercells in Belgium early next year, the source involved in securing financing for the collaboration told Reuters.
Univercells would transfer its full production line to Senegal in the second half of 2022, the source said, adding that the company would train local staff so they could eventually run the operation.
Univercells chief investment officer Kate Antrobus, when asked about the timeframe for the project, confirmed that it could send vaccine doses to Senegal early next year.
She declined to comment on the exact date for a full vaccine production line in Senegal but of the timelines referenced she said: “I do not think they are unreasonable.”
Timing depends on Univercells securing regulatory approval for a vaccine production site in Belgium. Antrobus said that was expected “any day now”.
Institut Pasteur director Amadou Sall declined to comment on the timeline or size of the project but said the facility was working with donors to secure financial backing.
“There is a lot of political will, I am optimistic. But it is not about momentum, it is about creating a real opportunity,” he said.
It is not clear yet what vaccine will be supplied to Senegal, but Antrobus said the site in Belgium would be able to manufacture a class of so-called viral vector COVID-19 vaccine such as those developed by Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.N), AstraZeneca (AZN.L), Russia’s Sputnik V and China’s Cansino.
“If COVID amazingly subsides over the next year….that same capacity could be used for other viruses,” Antrobus said.
Univercells also has its own COVID-19 vaccine candidate, being developed with Germany’s Leukocare and Italian firm ReiThera, which has completed Phase II trials. It is seeking financing to carry out Phase III, which the Italian government said it is ready to fund.