SOUTH AFRICA – Moderna Inc. has allowed its Covid-19 vaccine to be used in a World Health Organization effort to develop mRNA shots that would increase production and access for poor countries, Bloomberg has reported.

Afrigen Biologics & Vaccines, a South African biotechnology company working with the WHO, has used the Moderna vaccine in comparison studies in mice to test the effectiveness of its own shots, said Petro Terblanche, Afrigen’s managing director.

Afrigen hosts the Global mRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub of World Health Organization and is working to aid in mRNA vaccines production at more than 15 designated manufacturing sites in LMICs globally.

Demand for Covid shots has slowed across the world as more recent variants of the virus have caused milder illnesses, yet many people in low- and middle-income countries like South Africa remain unvaccinated and vulnerable to the potentially lethal disease.

With Moderna’s help, Afrigen is aiming to develop a shot that may be manufactured by at least 15 production facilities around the globe under the aegis of the WHO’s mRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub in Cape Town.

Moderna didn’t supply the vaccine directly. It allowed the vaccine to be provided by the French government after a request from the United Nations-backed Medicines Patent Pool, according to Marie-Paule Kieny, the pool’s chair.

Nonetheless, Pfizer Inc. refused a similar request because it didn’t regard the need as urgent, she said.

Moderna and the partnership of Pfizer and BioNTech SE have come under increased pressure to allow factories in poorer countries to produce their vaccines after the world’s richest nations raced to inoculate their populations while barely any vaccines were available in large parts of Africa.

Early in the pandemic, Moderna said it would not enforce its patents to help other drug companies develop their own jabs, particularly for low- and middle-income countries.

More support needed

Still, Afrigen may need further assistance from Moderna or Pfizer, including allowing the use of vaccine for comparative human trials that are expected to start by May. That request is expected in the coming weeks, Kieny said.

“Since the start of the pandemic Pfizer has received many requests to collaborate on studies and other initiatives from many different worthy sources,” Pfizer said in a response to questions.

“Unfortunately, it is impossible to support them all and our focus remains on delivering as per our existing supply agreements with governments.”

France has supported the mRNA hub, giving it 20 million euros (US$20 million) in assistance so far, said Kieny.

The WHO’s mRNA hub has a more ambitious plan, with the production of a vaccine designed by Afrigen to take place at factories in countries including South Africa, Argentina, Ukraine, and Bangladesh.

The early-stage trials of Afrigen’s shot in mice produced “a strong immune response,” the company said. Moderna placed some conditions on the use of its vaccine in the studies, Terblanche said, declining to elaborate.

Ultimately the WHO plans to follow the production of a Covid-19 vaccine with an attempt to develop inoculations for neglected diseases that plague the citizens of poor countries such as tuberculosis, HIV-AIDS, some forms of cancer, and hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola, Lassa fever, and the Marburg virus.

Earlier in June, Afrigen Biologics signed an agreement with the Univercells Group to develop the first African-owned Covid-19 vaccine.

The partnership will focus on developing a new messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccine leveraging intellectual property (IP) from both parties, as well as a new IP and boosting access to the shot.

mRNA specialist eTheRNA will extend support to Afrigen and Univercells in the partnership.

The firms will jointly work to address two key challenges, the lack of domestic cost-efficient manufacturing and the requirement for cold- or super-cold chains.

These two have obstructed the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines in Africa and other low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

Currently, African nations import 99% of the vaccines that they use.

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