A facility in Cape Town could produce Africa’s first vaccines using messenger RNA, the breakthrough science of the global inoculation effort against Covid-19, within 15 months of signing a technology transfer agreement.
The World Health Organization this week announced it will establish its first-ever mRNA technology transfer hub in the city in an agreement with Afrigen Biologics & Vaccines and the Biovac Institute. The global health body is in talks with potential partners who would work with the South African companies to produce the vaccines to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic in the world’s least-vaccinated continent.
While talks are being held with large companies that already have mRNA Covid-19 vaccines, most negotiations are taking place with smaller firms that are still trialling the shots, Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO’s chief scientist, said. Pfizer, together with its partner BioNTech, and Moderna are the two groups globally with approved mRNA Covid-19 vaccines.
“The target given to us, which is quite ambitious, is 12 months to put the first candidate into clinical trials from the day of technology transfer signing,” and those trials could take about three months, said Petro Terblanche, the managing director of Afrigen, in an interview on Friday. “That’s only possible if the technology partner is one of the big gorillas” and will take a bit longer if it’s a small company, she said.
The push by the WHO is an attempt to boost vaccine manufacturing in Africa as richer nations have hoarded Covid-19 inoculations, leaving few for the continent, which is in the grip of a third wave of coronavirus infections. While the U.S. and the U.K. have fully vaccinated more than 45% of their populations, just more than 1% of Africa’s 1.2 billion people have received a full course of Covid-19 shots.
“There is no vaccine equity,” Terblanche said. “There are no vaccines.”
Once a technology transfer agreement has been signed, Afrigen will perfect the process and make sure the vaccines produced at its laboratory are of acceptable quality. That process will then be transferred to Biovac, which will make the doses on a commercial scale. Other partners may be trained later to make vaccines elsewhere in Africa.
Ideally, Afrigen would want to work with one of the existing mRNA vaccine producers as well as a smaller company whose innoculations can be kept at between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius, making the shots more suitable for distribution across Africa. While working with Pfizer or Moderna would bring vaccines into production more quickly, their shots have to be kept at ultra-cold temperatures.
Afrigen operates the only laboratory in Africa that can produce adjuvants, a substance used to enhance the reaction of the body’s immune response to the presence of an antigen such as a virus.
The company was founded in 2014 as a venture between the South African government’s Industrial Development Corp. and the Infectious Disease Research Institute, a US-based non-profit, with the aim of manufacturing a tuberculosis vaccine in Africa.
It became operational in 2016, and IDRI has since sold its stake to Avacare Health Group. Avacare now owns 51% of the company, while the IDC holds 49%. Avacare operates in 20 African countries as well as a number of other nations.
“Afrigen has infrastructure that could fast-track this project,” Terblanche said, when asked why the company was selected by the WHO. “We have a group of scientists that understand technology transfer.”