COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers BioNTech and Pfizer have announced that they have found a partner in South Africa to produce their jab in Africa for the first time. The move to Africa comes amid growing criticism of vaccine inequality that has seen poor countries fall behind richer ones in the race to protect people from COVID-19.

Under the agreement with the partner, Biovac based in Cape Town will complete the last step in the manufacturing process of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, known as fill and finish.

The project however take time to be executed, with the first African-finished Pfizer vaccines not expected before 2022.

“This is a critical step forward in strengthening sustainable access to a vaccine in the fight against this tragic, worldwide pandemic. The technical transfer, on-site development and equipment installation activities will begin immediately,” said Biovac CEO Morena Makhoana.

The COVID-19 vaccine developed by Germany’s BioNTech and its US partner Pfizer, based on experimental mRNA technology, was the first to be approved in the West late last year. Studies have shown it is highly effective against COVID-19, including against newer variants.

Another plant in South Africa is already handling the fill and finish process for the COVID-19 shot developed by pharmaceutical firm Johnson & Johnson, which uses a traditional viral vector-based method.

Pfizer/BioNTech said they have so far shipped more than one billion COVID-19 vaccine doses to more than 100 countries or territories, including through the global Covax vaccine-sharing programme. The Covax scheme, backed by the World Health Organization and heavily relied on by African countries, but has so far delivered far fewer doses than expected. Only 2% of the African population, around 16 million people, were fully vaccinated.

In Africa, South Africa currently has the highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Africa, recording more than 2.3 million infections and over 67,000 deaths.

The country is currently battling a brutal third wave of the pandemic, fueled by a lack of vaccines, public fatigue with COVID-19 restrictions and the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant.

With vaccine rollouts well under way in the West, and supply even outstripping demand in some countries, calls have grown for pharma companies to waive patents on their life-saving jabs.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa last month announced a plan to turn his country into an mRNA vaccine hub, saying Africans “Cannot continue to rely on vaccines that are made outside of Africa because they never come”.