WHO-backed S. African scientists announce breakthrough in hunt for covid vaccine

South Africa’s Afrigen Biologics & Vaccines Ltd. is receiving global applause after the company said it had made a Covid-19 vaccine that matches the one by Moderna Inc. which rebuffed its request for a partnership.

Afrigen, part of the World Health Organization’s mRNA technology transfer hub in Cape Town, obtained the publicly available sequence of the Moderna shot from Stanford University and has now made its own version, Petro Terblanche, the managing director of Afrigen, said.

The WHO set up the mRNA hub in the South African city, its first, in June in a bid to address concerns that poor countries weren’t getting sufficient access to Covid-19 vaccines.

The initial idea was to form a partnership with a major producer of mRNA vaccines, however, companies including Pfizer Inc., BioNTech SE, and Moderna all declined the WHO’s request to share their technology and expertise.

“That didn’t happen,” Terblanche said. “We put a team together and moved on.”

Afrigen, a laboratory that produces materials that can be used in vaccines, is now doing final tests and will then transfer the technology to larger companies that can make the substance on a bigger scale.

The initial transfer will be to the BioVac Institute, which is also in Cape Town, and then there will be transfers to Sinergium Biotech SAin Argentina and Brazil’s Fundacao Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, she said.

The vaccine still needs to go through clinical trials and it could be two years before a license can be sought and the shot rolled out to the general population, she said.

Afrigen is permitted to make the vaccine especially as it is still in an experimental stage, she said. Moderna, which declined to comment, has previously said it won’t enforce its patent during the pandemic.

“The sequence is in the public domain,” she said. “We have the freedom to operate.”

South Africa is a good place to hold the trials because of its medical expertise, ethnically diverse population, and a high prevalence of co-morbidities, she said.

While the vaccine may not be available for some time it demonstrates the technical capability of Afrigen.

The company is looking at making another Covid-19 vaccine itself that won’t need to be stored at the ultra-low temperatures required by Moderna’s shot and will ultimately look to tackle diseases prevalent in Africa such as HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria, she said.

After the coronavirus emerged, many developing nations turned to Covax, the global distribution program. But the initiative has struggled to access doses, hobbled by production delays and export bans.

Read also: WHO decries slow vaccine uptake in Africa despite increased supplies

While Covax was counting on India’s manufacturing muscle, the government prioritized its own citizens when a lethal wave of infections hit earlier this year.

A new plant, under construction on the edge of Dakar, Senegal is expected to begin production in 2022 and could help Africa avert a replay of the past year’s lopsided vaccine rollout.

Manufacturing has been concentrated in just a handful of countries, and wealthy governments have secured most doses, leaving Africa and other regions far behind.

Of the more than 8 billion doses given around the world, just 3% have gone to people in Africa, the World Health Organization estimates.

The project, backed by European countries, the U.S., the World Bank, and others, aims to produce 300 million doses a year targeting Covid and other diseases, helping to ensure Africa is better equipped when the next contagion comes. Institut Pasteur has teamed with Germany’s BioNTech SE and is talking with other potential partners, Sall said.

Yet even reaching those ambitious goals would leave Africa far short of the vaccine supplies needed to give two doses to each of its more than 700 million adults. And Africa’s wider plan will depend on raising additional funds, strengthening regulation, and expanding distribution efforts and training, potentially taking years to deliver.

“We cannot afford to fail,” said Cheikh Oumar Seydi, who leads the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s work on the continent.

The plan in Dakar is to produce shots using different technologies, in case one is less successful.

The project could also pay dividends in other ways, spurring more investment, building trust in health systems, and leaving the next generations in a better spot, he said.

Under pressure to help narrow the vaccine divide, a number of companies are stepping up two years into the pandemic. BioNTech, working with the governments of Senegal and Rwanda, sees a network that could eventually supply hundreds of millions of doses to the continent.

The company will produce messenger RNA vaccines, harnessing the novel technology BioNTech and its U.S. partner Pfizer Inc. used successfully to make a Covid shot.

BioNTech and Pfizer also plan to produce their Covid vaccine at the Biovac Institute in Cape Town. That’s expected to start in the third quarter of 2022, manufacturing at a rate of 100 million doses annually, according to Biovac Chief Executive Officer Morena Makhoana. The facility will focus on filling vials and packaging.