Covid vaccine makers BioNTech and Pfizer said Wednesday they would produce their jab in South Africa from 2022, a first for the continent that could see much-needed immunisation drives pick up speed.

Poor countries have fallen behind richer ones in the race to protect people from the coronavirus, sparking widespread criticism of drug firms and governments of wealthy nations.

Under the agreement, Cape Town-based Biovac will complete the last step in the manufacturing process of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, known as "fill and finish", the companies said in a statement.

The project will take time to get off the ground however, with the first African-finished Pfizer vaccines not expected before next year.

Once up and running, Biovac is set to churn out more than 100 million doses annually that will be distributed to the 55 countries in the African Union.

"This is a critical step forward in strengthening sustainable access to a vaccine in the fight against this tragic, worldwide pandemic," said Biovac chief executive officer Morena Makhoana.

"Technical transfer, on-site development and equipment installation activities will begin immediately."

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called the partnership "a breakthrough" for African nations.

"The protection of Africans is a necessary and critical contribution to the protection of humanity as a whole," said Ramaphosa, who has previously warned that the hoarding of Covid-19 shots by wealthy countries could lead to a "vaccine apartheid".

The reaction from the World Health Organization was muted.

"We welcome all initiatives to increase Covid-19 vaccine production in the future but immediate action is needed now," a spokesman said.

In low-income countries, "only one percent of people have received at least one dose, compared with more than half of people in high-income countries", he added.

The coronavirus 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.

- Debate over patents -

Calls have grown for pharma companies to waive patents on their life-saving jabs to speed up the pace of inoculations globally.

Washington and Paris have backed the suggestion, but the vaccine companies themselves are fiercely opposed.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also said that suspending intellectual property rights could stifle innovation and would not resolve the lack of manufacturing capacity in the short term.

She has instead argued for licensing agreements and partnerships between vaccine makers and local firms, the approach taken by BioNTech and Pfizer.

"We aim to enable people on all continents to manufacture and distribute our vaccine while ensuring the quality of the manufacturing process and the doses," said Ugur Sahin, BioNTech's co-founder and CEO.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said weakening intellectual property "will only discourage the type of unprecedented innovation which brought vaccines forward in record time and make it harder for companies to collaborate going forward".

- Vaccine hub -

Pfizer/BioNTech said they had so far shipped more than one billion Covid-19 vaccine doses to over 100 countries or territories, including through the Covax vaccine-sharing programme.

The Covax scheme, backed by the WHO and heavily relied on by African countries, has so far delivered far fewer doses than expected.

South Africa has the highest number of Covid-19 cases and fatalities in Africa and is currently battling a third wave.

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".