SOUTH AFRICA – South Africa’s Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, a Cape Town-based biotechnology company, has designed and developed the first mRNA COVID-19 vaccine at lab scale in Africa.

Afrigen scientists used publicly available sequence of Moderna Inc’s mRNA COVID-19 vaccine to make its own version of the shot which could be tested in humans before the end of this year.

The candidate vaccine would be the first to be made based on a widely used vaccine without the assistance and approval of the developer.

Afrigen is a company strategically directed, supported and capitalized by Avacare Healthcare Group and the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) of South Africa.

It drives a business strategy focusing on product development, bulk adjuvant manufacturing and supply as well as distribution of key biologicals to address unmet healthcare needs.

Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna companies who are the market leaders of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine declined a World Health Organization (WHO) request to share their technology and expertise on how to make COVID vaccines.

Pfizer and Moderna argued that they needed to oversee any technology transfer due to the complexity of the manufacturing process.

The technology hub in Cape Town decided to produce the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine on its own last September after the nonacceptance and has made its own version without Moderna’s help.

Under pressure to make drugs in lower-income countries, Moderna and BioNTech have announced plans to build mRNA vaccine factories in Africa but production is still a long way off.

We developed our own processes to come up with the Afrigen mRNA hub vaccine. We started with the Moderna sequence because that gives, in our view, the best starting material,” asserted Petro Terblanche, Managing Director at Afrigen.

Though Moderna’s vaccine has an abundance of public information and pledge not to enforce patents during the pandemic, it’s not clear what will happen after the pandemic ends.

Afrigen in collaboration with Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand has managed to make its first micro-litre laboratory scale batches of COVID mRNA vaccines at the Cape Town facility,” further added Petro Terblanche.

The biotech company is also working on a next generation mRNA vaccine that doesn’t need freezing temperatures for storage as required for the Pfizer and Moderna doses.

Consequently, it would be better suited to Africa which often deals with high temperatures, poor health facilities and infrastructure.

Last year WHO picked a consortium including Afrigen for a pilot project to give poor and middle-income countries the know-how to make COVID vaccines.

The WHO and consortium partners hope their technology transfer hub will help overcome inequalities between rich nations and poorer countries in getting access to vaccines since about 99% of Africa’s vaccines are imported while the negligible amount is manufactured locally.

Moreover, wealthy countries have hoovered up most of the world’s supplies of COVID-19 vaccines during the pandemic.

If the project shows that Africa can use technology to produce cutting-edge products, it will change the global mindset on vaccine manufacturing.

Afrigen has agreed to help train companies to make the shot in Argentina and Brazil where online training for some companies began last year and more manufacturers are expected to get on board within the next month.

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