The COVID-19 pandemic exposed Africa’s dependence on overseas production as vaccines were quickly rolled out in other parts of the world while African countries remained at the bottom of the list. The need to build capacity on the continent has been widely recognized, but few Western actors have yet made a tangible contribution to Africa’s future vaccine independence. Stockholm-headquartered Contract Development and Manufacturing Organisation (CDMO) Recipharm is, however, bucking this trend with the creation of a vaccine manufacturing joint venture in Morocco, MARBIO.
Towards Manufacturing Resilience
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent vaccine access challenges have led many emerging economies to try and localise more elements of the vaccine production process to safeguard supply. “Discussions around helping developing countries, especially in Africa, to achieve a greater degree of manufacturing resilience soared post-pandemic,” said Recipharm CEO Marc Funk in a recent PharmaBoardroom interview.
However, when it came to addressing the issue, companies willing to take specific action were thin on the ground according to Funk. “Building greater capacity goes far beyond investing money and building a plant. It is a complex challenge that, unlike Recipharm, most companies have shied away from attempting to solve.”
Building greater capacity goes far beyond investing money and building a plant
Marc Funk, CEO, Recipharm
Recipharm took the issue on, signing an agreement with local banking consortium BAB and the Mohammed VI Fund for the creation of a fill and finish production centre in Morocco. “It’s an honour to act as the CDMO of choice on this project. Together with the other parties involved, we will be able to work to offer Africa a concrete opportunity to gradually gain health independence from western countries and ultimately help to ensure it is less vulnerable in times of crisis,” he asserted at the time of the agreement.
MARBIO, the 42-hectare site located in Benslimane, may be backed by a USD 500 million commitment from the Moroccan Government and the consortium over the course of five years, but as Recipharm’s CEO points out, the project is not without its challenges. “Here in Morocco, we are starting from scratch. Our role is a pioneering one. A strong level of support from the state – which we thankfully have – is vital, and such transformations can only be achieved via robust public-private partnerships (PPP),” he claims.
For Younès Hillali, MARBIO’s general manager, other challenges came into play. “The biggest initial challenge was to build this biotech facility during the COVID pandemic,” he states. “The second challenge was upgrading technical capabilities. Morocco is lucky to boast plenty of engineers and pharmacists, but aseptic processing and sterile fill and finish are niches in which Moroccans do not have a lot of experience, something that Recipharm is helping address.”
The PPP Model
Rather than choosing a technology transfer model, Recipharm entered into a joint venture. “Morocco, like the rest of Africa, lacks a track record in sterile aseptic manufacturing. Recipharm wanted to bring this knowledge to Africa while retaining its status as a private revenue-generating company and a joint venture was the best way to achieve this,” Funk explains. “The partnership means that Recipharm is a minority shareholder in the new company but with total managerial responsibility and the duty to bring technology transfer and capacity knowledge to bear here.”
Recipharm wanted to bring this knowledge to Africa while retaining its status as a private revenue-generating company and a joint venture was the best way to achieve this
MARBIO, says Funk, will initially establish its ability to produce at Western standards from a facility in Morocco by serving it first customer, the Moroccan Ministry of Health (MoH). “Our first customer will be the MoH, which needs vaccines. MARBIO will manufacture the sterile fill and finish part of the MoH’s vaccine needs based on the requirements they lay out.”
Once production for the MoH is in place MARBIO will broaden its reach to the rest of Africa. “The second customer segment will be public sector actors across the wider African continent. Vaccines manufactured in Morocco can be exported under the ‘in Africa, for Africa’ label to serve Africa’s needs.” And beyond these goals, Funk asserts: “MARBIO can become part of our global CDMO network, serving both the large pharmaceuticals and biotech companies that are already part of Recipharm’s client portfolio as well as new customers.”
The African market is expected to develop over the next three decades and MARBIO will be there to meet its emerging needs, says Funk. “Recipharm will become the only CDMO in Africa from a Western country, giving us an early-mover advantage over our competitors.” Recipharm’s African foothold will also facilitate other drug manufacturing capabilities beyond fill and finish. “The new site’s initial focus will be on sterile fill and finish solutions, once credibility has been established, we will certainly move into other drug and vaccine substances,” says Funk.
On a pan-African front, the African Union is expecting over 17,000 biotech jobs to be created in the next five years
Younès Hillali, general manager, MARBIO
Hillali also sees MARBIO as an opportunity to build the continent’s capabilities in terms of talent.“On a pan-African front, the African Union is expecting over 17,000 biotech jobs to be created in the next five years, so building up capabilities and people will be crucial not just for our own success, but that of the entire continent.”
Creating an Ecosystem
Recipharm is hoping other companies and institutions will follow its lead and invest in Moroccan vaccine manufacturing, helping to establish an ecosystem there. “Our site contains 45 hectares of dedicated land, the equivalent of 61 football stadiums, but MARBIO only uses a tenth of it. What is being built here follows a much larger vision of creating a more interconnected ecosystem where new entrants are very welcome,” Funk affirms.
“We have already spent a couple of hundred million euros on this project, but the most important thing is building up capabilities and convincing other parties to partner with us. The end goal is to help create a sustainable network which fulfils the mission of creating vaccine and medicine manufacturing resilience in Africa. We can be very confident, based on the work that has already been done that this will become a reality in the coming years.”