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Under pressure to share technology, Moderna to build vaccine factory in Africa

The announcement from Moderna comes amid criticism of the drugmaker, and other Western companies with authorized coronavirus vaccines, for not doing more to share their technology with the world.

Recently, Politico reported Thursday, Moderna has been at odds with the White House over international donations of the company’s coronavirus vaccine, which the Biden administration wants to significantly increase. Last month, the administration struck an agreement with Pfizer to buy another 500 million doses of the pharmaceutical giant’s vaccine for donation to lower-income countries.

While Moderna’s facility won’t be operational soon enough to meet the immediate demand for COVID-19 shots in Africa, it could eventually play a role in future vaccination campaigns.

Germany’s BioNTech, which partnered with Pfizer on their mRNA vaccine for COVID-19, is also increasing its presence in Africa. The company in July said it plans to set up manufacturing there and build infrastructure for distribution of vaccines.

African nations are well behind the rest of the world in COVID-19 vaccinations. Only 7% of the continent’s population has had at least one dose, compared with 66% for the U.S. and Canada, 58% for Latin America and 57% for Europe, according to data compiled by The New York Times.

The disparity stems in good part from wealthy nations placing large orders well before vaccines became available and keeping extra doses for booster dose campaigns that are now getting underway. An international program called COVAX, designed to get shots to less developed countries, has also been plagued by production issues and distribution problems.

Meanwhile, some advocacy groups are pushing for Moderna and BioNTech to share their technology with the world, so production can ramp up more quickly. In May, the Biden administration went so far as to break with years of U.S. policy and support a waiver of patent rights for coronavirus vaccines.

“Pledging to build a plant in the future cannot excuse Moderna’s failure to share knowledge or adequate doses today,” said Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines program, in a statement Thursday.

But the companies argue that drastic step will discourage future innovation while doing little to stem the pandemic because of the complexity involved in manufacturing the vaccines. The World Trade Organization has yet to take official action.