Biotechnology is an applied science that uses biological systems and living organisms to develop useful pharmaceutical, diagnostic, agricultural, or environmental products for humans. The biotechnology industry is best known for its many healthcare-related products such as insulin made from human genes. In the agriculture sector, biotechnology is used to genetically engineer crops to improve yields and resistance to disease.
More recently, the biotechnology companies Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna developed the mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 in record time. Yet many people in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) still do not have access to vaccines due to the expense of vaccine biomanufacturing and distribution. Specifically, LMICs face obstacles and blockages due to poor roads, lack of electricity and internet access, technology gaps, and lack of local health products and drug manufacturing.
Biomanufacturing plants for vaccine production and distribution is an expensive investment, confining most plants — and their vaccine distribution — to wealthier countries. Yet private sector investment in biomanufacturing in LMICs can create the global health infrastructure necessary for equitable vaccine distribution.
Partnerships Expand Equal Access
In 2021, biopharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech partnered with the South African biopharmaceutical company Biovac to manufacture and distribute COVID-19 vaccines throughout Africa. On March 1, 2022, a consortium of nine development and finance institutions, including the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, also announced a partnership with Biovac to support its vaccine expansion.
“The United States is proud to collaborate on this effort to expand manufacturing capacity for COVID-19 and other critical vaccines in Africa to improve healthcare on the continent,” said DFC CEO Scott Nathan.
For the COVAX initiative, the World Bank partnered with local governments and the private sector to determine country preparedness for vaccinations before their arrival (such as ultra-cold storage and distribution), resulting in 140 country assessments. Creating a framework to connect international finance institutions, countries, and private sector biotechnological entities will increase funding for vaccine manufacturing, strengthen supply chains through technological access and innovation, and improve global vaccination rates.
Challenges to Address
Biotechnology infrastructure is a necessary, sustainable investment and both the private sector and governments must address and mitigate certain challenges to create the best systems and structures that improve global health outcomes.
Cost is one of the largest factors, but multilateral initiatives that include government, private sector, and non-government organizations offer financial solutions as well as the opportunity to co-create subsequent innovation. Past partnerships and programs make it clear that private sector investment works with regards to improving access and quality to life-saving medicine. The private sector galvanized the creation of mRNA vaccines that most people did not believe would be ready for distribution on a short timeline.
There is also an economic incentive for the private sector to partner with government and non-governmental organizations — such partnerships expand a company’s reach into local markets where demand is high.
The Pfizer-BioNTech partnership with Biovec and the support of its nine development and finance partners is a strong model for future private investment. Any type of infrastructure requires a sizable investment, but the COVID-19 pandemic and its continued impact demonstrate the urgent need to prepare and ensure global protection across LMICs.
Private Sector Engagement at WBD
At WBD, our private sector engagement team can facilitate partnerships between donor organizations and the government. We have supported governments in Southeast Asia and Africa through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) as well as USAID on how to engage the private sector to improve development outcomes. Our approach to making connections between governments and donor organizations with private sector partners is deeply rooted in creating shared value and building partnerships based on mutual trust.
We work with our partners to use advanced technologies, including Artificial Learning and Machine Learning, to help save lives, improve livelihoods, and create prosperous communities in the decades ahead. We understand the need for private sector investment in biotechnology to improve global vaccine production and distribution, and we work with our clients to advance healthy lives for all, no matter where they live.
Author: Mia Caglieris, Associate at WBD, is a strategy and an international development professional engaged with the firm’s Private Sector Engagement Support award with the United States Agency for International Development.