In a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa’s north, a small biotech business is working to change things. The first mRNA COVID-19 vaccine created, manufactured, and produced at a lab scale has begun development by Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines. The vaccine will be industrialised by Biovac, another biotech business based in South Africa. The World Health Organization, the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the Medicines Patent Pool, and other partners launched the plan in 2021, and the first vaccine to come out of Africa’s first mRNA hub, situated at Afrigen’s headquarters, is scheduled to be released in 2022.
Through the hub, Afrigen will be able to distribute the development of mRNA technology to five additional African nations: Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia. These nations will then have access to an mRNA platform to make their own vaccines, including those for other diseases like HIV and tuberculosis. If everything goes as planned, it will signal a significant shift toward Africa producing its own vaccines in response to pandemics rather than relying on Western supply.
According to Nature Africa, Phase one trials for the COVID-19 vaccine will start in 2023, which means that the final product won’t likely be accessible until 2025 at the earliest. The venture’s success won’t be determined by the quantity of COVID-19 vaccine dose orders, according to Morena Makhoana, CEO of Biovac.
“What is important about the hub is that it’s a platform,” he tells Nature Africa.
According to him, it is crucial that the research shows how the platform operates at both a small- and large-scale so that it may be modified to meet vaccine demand, adding, “We’ll have the capacity to go up to 15, 20, 50 million doses depending on what the need is.”
The South African government is expected to order the vaccine, according to Charles Gore, executive director of the Medicines Patent Pool.
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Gore said: “What I’m less confident about is whether other countries in the region will support this and that’s what we need. We need all 54 African countries buying the vaccine, not just the six where the spokes are ideally to be supporting this project”. The vaccine must be priced well compared with alternatives for it to be an attractive option.
The vaccine mRNA technology can be quickly used to make candidates for other diseases, says Petro Terblanche, Afrigen’s CEO. “We need drug product, substance manufacturing, and primary manufacturing on this continent to really bolster the industry,” she adds.
According to her, Afrigen does not intend to produce the COVID-19 vaccine for industrial-sized facilities that can produce 300 million doses annually, adding “We are proposing smaller facilities, a distributed model, a low operating cost but suitable for regional supply.”
One of Nigeria’s top virologists, Oyewale Tomori, believes the mRNA hub might make a difference if it can adapt the technology to create novel vaccines that are effective against particular diseases in Africa.
Despite numerous other obstacles, there have been some positive actions. The African Development Bank formed a foundation in June with the goal of investing $3 billion over the following ten years to expand Africa’s capacity for pharmaceutical production. If enough money is invested, along with political resolve and legal triumphs, Africa’s emerging mRNA vaccine production business might become well-known.
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