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South Africa chosen to host first WHO Covid mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (right), and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron bump elbows during a press conference at the Union Buildings, Pretoria on 28 May 2021. Beyond the shift from the African to the European Peace Facility, the EU is aiming for a more strategic and tailored partnership with African nations. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Themba Hadebe / Pool)

But only a generous transfer of surplus vaccines from the rich North to the poor South can prevent an immediate catastrophe, the WHO says.

With Covid-19 surging in Africa and a large continental shortage of vaccines, South Africa has been chosen to host the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) first Covid-19 messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine technology transfer hub to scale up production and access to vaccines. 

This will be the first in a series of Covid mRNA vaccine technology transfer hubs that the WHO is launching around the world to boost Covid-19 vaccine supplies.  

It will be established by a South African consortium comprising the companies Biovac and Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines and a network of universities, partnering with the WHO and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC). 

The South African consortium was chosen from a list of about 20 companies or consortiums which wanted to receive technologies, while about 20 companies offered their technologies to be manufactured by the hub.

President Cyril Ramaphosa said the production of the mRNA vaccine in South Africa would help to overcome the inequality in vaccine distribution in Africa, which was still struggling with severe shortages while developed countries had surpluses. He called for an end to this “vaccine nationalism” and said that Africa had to manufacture its own vaccines as soon as possible as supplies from the North were just not forthcoming. 

“The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the full extent of the vaccine gap between developed and developing economies, and how that gap can severely undermine global health security,” Ramaphosa said at the virtual launch of the South African technology transfer hub on Monday.

“This landmark initiative is a major advance in the international effort to build vaccine development and manufacturing capacity that will put Africa on a path to self determination. South Africa welcomes the opportunity to host a vaccine technology transfer hub and to build on the capacity and expertise that already exists on the continent to contribute to this effort.”

Although the establishment of this vaccine technology transfer hub was a step in the right direction, it did not detract from South Africa’s insistence on a waiver of Trips — the protection of intellectual property rights — for Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing companies to allow developing countries to produce them more cheaply, Ramaphosa said.

“This is great news, particularly for Africa, which has the least access to vaccines,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of local production to address health emergencies, strengthen regional health security and expand sustainable access to health products.”

He noted that Covid-19 infections and deaths had surged by almost 40% over the past week across Africa, while deaths had tripled or quadrupled in some countries. He attributed this to vaccine inequity, the spread of the new, more dangerous Covid-19 variants and a relaxation of public health measures.

However, the head of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, Michael Ryan, stressed that manufacturing Covid-19 vaccines in Africa, while commendable, would not address the immediate crisis, which was to get vaccines into the arms of the most vulnerable people on the continent and around the world as soon as possible.

Ryan said the world had a “short window of opportunity” before the coronavirus evolved a variant that was more transmissible and more lethal. The only way to seize that opportunity was for richer countries to provide their surplus vaccines to poorer countries to enable them to vaccinate this relatively small number of the most vulnerable people.

“It will be a catastrophic moral failure at global level if we do not do that,” Ryan said.

WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said it would probably take between nine and 12 months to produce a Covid mRNA vaccine at the new South African technology transfer hub.

The timeline would depend on whether the partners chose an already tried and tested vaccine technology or a more experimental one. She said the candidate partners for the hub included some larger, more established vaccine manufacturers as well as some smaller, less established ones.

Getting to the point of manufacture would take longer for the smaller companies as their vaccines would still have to undergo Stage Two and Three clinical trials.

She added that the good news was that South Africa already had considerable experience in conducting clinical trials.

The South African Covid mRNA technology transfer hub is being supported by France as part of its wider effort to boost Africa’s capacity to manufacture Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. 

On his visit to South Africa in May, French President Emmanuel Macron and the German government announced financial support for South Africa’s Aspen Pharmacare company to boost production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

At Monday’s launch of the mRNA technology transfer hub, Macron said he was proud of Biovac and France’s South African partners for having been selected by the WHO to establish the Covid mRNA vaccine hub. The mRNA technology is used by the Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines.

“This initiative is the first of a long list to come, that we will keep supporting, with our partners, united in the belief that acting for global public goods is the fight of the century and that it cannot wait,” Macron said.

The WHO said the hub partners would negotiate the details of the initiative with the South African government and public and private partners inside the country and from around the world.

The WHO added that the technology transfer hub would benefit from the Medicines Patent Pool’s vast experience of intellectual property (IP) management and issuing of IP licences.

It said Biovac was a biopharmaceutical company that resulted from a partnership formed with the South African government in 2003 to establish local vaccine manufacturing capability for the provision of vaccines for national health management and security.

“Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines is a biotechnology company focused on product development, bulk adjuvant manufacturing and supply and distribution of key biologicals to address unmet healthcare needs.

“The organisations complement one another, and can each take on different roles within the proposed collaboration: Biovac will act as developer, Afrigen as manufacturer, and a consortium of universities as academic supporters providing mRNA know-how, and Africa CDC for technical and regional support.

“The South African consortium benefits from having existing operating facilities that have spare capacity and because it has experience in technology transfers. It is also a global hub that can start training technology recipients immediately.” DM

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