CAPE TOWN (Reuters) – The World Health Organization said on Friday six African countries – Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia – would be the first on the continent to receive the technology needed to produce mRNA vaccines.
The technology transfer project, launched last year in Cape Town, aims to help low- and middle-income countries manufacture mRNA vaccines at scale and according to international standards.
mRNA is the advanced technology used by companies such as Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna for their COVID-19 shots.
The WHO established its global mRNA technology transfer hub after large-scale vaccine purchases by wealthy countries and companies prioritising sales to governments that could pay the highest price. This pushed low- and middle-income countries to the back of the queue for COVID-19 vaccines.
In June last year, the WHO selected a consortium of South African companies to run the global mRNA hub, with Afrigen Biologics later using Moderna’s publicly available vaccine sequence to produce its own version of the U.S. company’s COVID shot. The first approval for doses made by Afrigen could come only in 2024, the WHO has said.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the pandemic had demonstrated more than any other event how reliance on a few companies to supply global public goods was both limiting and dangerous.
“In the mid- to long-term, the best way to address health emergencies and reach universal health coverage is to significantly increase the capacity of all regions to manufacture the health products they need,” he said in a statement.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa urged the global vaccine distribution scheme COVAX and vaccines alliance GAVI to buy vaccines from local manufacturing hubs.
“The lack of a market for vaccines produced in Africa is something that should be concerning to all of us,” Ramaphosa told a news conference on the sidelines of a European Union-African Union summit in Brussels.
“Organizations such as COVAX and GAVI need to commit to buying vaccines from local manufacturers instead of going outside of those hubs that have been set up.”
Senegalese President Macky Sall said: “Our aim of course is to have 60% of vaccines given in Africa … be produced in Africa as well.”
The Rwandan presidency and health ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment on whether Rwanda had applied to receive the technology needed to produce mRNA vaccines. The country has positioned itself as a willing partner to drug companies including Moderna and BioNTech that have pledged to manufacture their COVID-19 vaccines on the continent by building factories there.
DESIGNED, LED, OWNED BY AFRICA
The hub has already established mRNA vaccine production at laboratory scale and is working towards commercial production. Training of the recipient countries will begin in March 2022.
“This is mRNA technology designed in Africa, led by Africa and owned by Africa, with the support of Team Europe,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.
Primarily set up in response to the COVID-19 emergency, the transfer hub could expand manufacturing capacity to tackle diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria in Africa.
The first recipient of the mRNA technology transfer is consortium partner and partly state-owned South African vaccine manufacturer Biovac, which will mass produce the vaccine once it has passed the necessary safety and regulatory hurdles.
Other manufacturing “spokes” in the WHO’s hub-and-spoke concept include Argentina and Brazil.
The mRNA hub in South Africa has a global approach, serving not only Africa but the world. To date, over 20 countries have requested access to the hub’s technology transfer, the WHO said.
Kate Stegeman, an advocacy coordinator for International aid group Medicins Sans Frontieres, called the announcement “a welcome milestone”.
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