The mRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub in South Africa will start animal studies on its first COVID-19 vaccine candidate in October, a senior World Health Organization official said last week.
If all goes according to plan, human clinical trials will begin towards the end of 2023.
The mRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub was established with a longer term view, beyond COVID-19, World Health Organization (WH)O Chief Scientist Dr Soumya Swamination said at the weekly media briefing.
The WHO’s ambitious project is hosted by the South African company Afrigen Biologics, and aims to equip low and middle income countries (LMICs) with the skills to manufacture mRNA vaccines.
Scientists at the University of the Witwatersrand worked with Afrigen to deconstruct the sequence of the Moderna vaccine and build it from scratch. Such reverse engineering is legal in South African law, which contains a provision for carrying out research and development regardless of patent protection.
WHO chose Moderna’s vaccine because of an abundance of public information about it, and the pharmaceutical company’s pledge not to enforce Covid-related patents against manufacturers in – or for – selected low and middle-income countries during the pandemic.
The WHO mRNA hub in Cape Town will share the knowhow with 15 to 20 “spokes” in Africa, Latin America and eastern Europe, creating a network of scientists who will collaborate to produce mRNA vaccines in low and middle-income countries, according to The Guardian. Scientists from Brazil, Argentina, Indonesia and Egypt have travelled to the hub in South Africa to start training.
African countries currently import over 90% of their vaccines, lacking the capacity to develop and manufacture vaccines locally. Local manufacture of vaccines will enable the easy distribution to nearby countries, which will also address the accessibility and coverage gap.
The groundbreaking initiative is built around the idea that mRNA vaccines could have far-reaching applications in tackling a number of diseases. The hub has the potential to expand manufacturing capacity for other products, such as insulin to treat diabetes; cancer medicines; and mRNA vaccines it hopes to develop for diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis.
However, according to experts, wide-ranging mRNA patents held by Moderna pose a threat to the future success of the vaccine. Moderna has said it won’t enforce its patents to block the production of Covid-19 vaccines in poorer countries while the pandemic is still raging. But it’s unclear whether it would do so if the hub and other companies seek to make shots for other diseases using the mRNA platform that’s being developed.
The success of the hub and the companies it transfers technology to will also depend on the willingness of governments and associations such as Gavi, the global vaccine alliance, to buy shots that initially may cost more than those made by large pharmaceutical companies.