South Africa's Afrigen Biologics and Belgium's Univercells will develop the first African-owned COVID-19 shot. The move is intended to help reduce the continent's reliance on other regions for vaccines.
Afrigen, based in Cape Town, said it is working to facilitate the production of mRNA vaccines at more than 15 manufacturing sites in low- and middle-income nations worldwide.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that there is a pressing need to build African capabilities in vaccine development and manufacturing. Without the capacity to make their own vaccines, too many countries haven’t been able to access them”,
said Petro Terblanche, Afrigen’s managing director.
The partners said they will seek to develop vaccines that are cheaper to produce and easier to store and distribute in rural and remote locations where few people have been vaccinated.
According to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), only 17.6 percent of the 1.4 billion people on the continent have been fully vaccinated.
Several of the existing mRNA vaccines must be contained in super-cold storage to retain their efficacy, which poses problems for some countries trying to get the vaccines to rural areas, where electricity supply is not guaranteed.
"This is about responding to the challenge faced by the developing world during the pandemic. Africa imports about 99% of all the vaccines it needs, but the vaccination rate remains low (less than 20%). Building up Africa's vaccine production capacity, especially if companies manage to develop vaccines that do not require powerful cold storage facilities, is the only way to guarantee the availability of vaccines and, potentially, collective immunity,"
says Elena Voynikanis, an expert at the BRICS Competition Law and Policy Centre.
The group is developing an mRNA vaccine that can be stored in regular refrigerators, so it is easier to store and distribute to rural populations without needing special equipment.
It will also be working with eTheRNA, a technology company with the expertise to deal with vaccines and cold storage challenges.
Over two years after the pandemic, only 13 African countries have reached the 40 percent target.
Most African countries get their vaccine supplies from Unicef through the vaccine alliance Gavi.