Truth in vaccine access row can be as tricky to find as a needle

Waning demand threatens efforts to produce vaccine locally so perhaps education is the priority

Vaccine producers came under attack this week from activists looking for at least temporary waivers to help drive wider vaccination levels in low- and middle-income countries around the world.

The protestations of the industry that opening the door to their trade secrets was not required as there was at present a two billion surplus of vaccines and that even the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention had asked that all Covid-19 vaccine donations be paused until later this year because hesitancy and logistical hurdles across the continent were hampering administration were dismissed.

The vaccines in surplus were ones that developed countries were not interested in, not the more successful mRNA vaccines, it was argued. And they were, in any case, perilously close to the end of their useful life when they eventually got to developing countries.

It was, some alleged, almost a contrived logistical roadblock. With proper supply of equipment, expertise and the sort of educational information campaigns that were funded in the richer states – such as Ireland – successful vaccination campaigns were possible in any country.

In truth, there is truth in some of these assertions. However, somewhat inconveniently, it appears that a plant Pfizer was working with in South Africa has now decided to scale back the operation.

Pfizer was working with Cape Town-based BioVac Institute on setting up a fill/finish facility for its mRNA jab at a plant run by the South African group. The plan was to produce 100 million doses a year from the facility.

But Morena Makhoana, chief executive of the institute, which is partly owned by the South African government, says waning demand for the shots means that the plants output will be lower.

BioVac was due to be the first southern hemisphere location to use the mRNA technology developed by Pfizer and, its German partner, BioNTech. It had invested 300 million rand (€17.8 million) upgrading the plant to finish the vaccines and keep doses at the required very low temperatures.

Another local supplier, Aspen Pharmacare, which is apparently Africa's biggest drugmaker, said earlier this month that it may close a line making 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,” Mr Makhoana said in an interview.