WHO taps South Africa as host of COVID vaccine tech transfer hub
South Africa will host the continent’s first messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine technology transfer hub for COVID-19 vaccines, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced yesterday.
This comes after the WHO issued an expression of interestin April, to establish COVID mRNA vaccine technology transfer hubs to scale up production and access to COVID vaccines in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).
The WHO describes the transfer hubs as training facilities, where the technology is established at industrial scale and clinical development performed. Interested manufacturers from LMICs can receive training and any necessary licences to the technology.
mRNA vaccine technology has been used in shots for two of the COVID-19 vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna. It is also regarded as easier to scale than other vaccine technologies.
On Monday afternoon, WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that relying on a few companies to supply global public goods is limiting and dangerous.
Following the call for expressions of interest, Ghebreyesus explained more than 50 proposals were received, half of which were from companies or institutions interested in receiving technology and half that were interested in providing the technology or acting as the training hub, or both.
“I’m delighted to announce that WHO is in discussions with a consortium of companies and institutions to establish a technology transfer hub in South Africa.”
He explained the consortium involves Cape Town-based firm Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, which will act as the hub for the manufacturing of mRNA vaccines and provide training to a second manufacturer called Biovac.
“In time, Afrigen could provide training to other manufacturers in Africa and beyond. The Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention will provide guidance through the partnership for African vaccines manufacturing.”
Ghebreyesus added the WHO is in negotiation with several companies that have indicated interest in providing their mRNA technology to the hub.
Unlike Western countries, with more developed economies, African nations face inequality in terms of access to COVID-19 vaccines. Statistics indicate that countries in the West now have more than 50% of their populations vaccinated, while only 1% of the African population is said to be vaccinated.
Even though the number of newly-reported COVID-19 cases has declined in the last eight weeks globally, the number of cases and deaths in Africa has increased by almost 40% in the past week, noted Ghebreyesus.
A handful of countries have high vaccination rates and are seeing lower numbers of hospitalisations and deaths, while other countries in Africa are now facing steep epidemics, he added.
Also speaking at the launch event, president Cyril Ramaphosa said the ability to manufacture vaccines, medicines and other health-related commodities will help put Africa on a path to self-determination.
“Through this initiative and others, we will change the narrative of an Africa that is the centre of disease and poor development. We will create a narrative that celebrates our successes in reducing the burden of disease, advancing self-reliance as well as advancing sustainable development.
“This will enhance our capacity to take responsibility for the health of Africans. We will be able to plan for the entire value chain from training a critical mass of young people, enhancing and maintaining our supply chain and ensuring the efficient use of medicines. As South Africa, we intend to pursue these objectives in close cooperation with other countries on the continent, enhancing regional trade and investing in science and innovation.”
Ramaphosa said that being host of a vaccine technology transfer hub is a historic step in the right direction; however, he noted it’s no detraction from the original proposal made by India and SA for the temporary waiver on intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
He elaborated: “We would like the negotiations that are taking place there [WTO] to proceed with speed because people in Africa are facing a rising wave of infections.
“In South Africa, we are facing the third wave which seems to be more severe than the first and the second one. The only defence that we have is to have vaccines.
“With this investment of technology, knowledge and expertise, we will go beyond the development and manufacture of vaccines into a new era of innovation and progress. This initiative should never be seen as just being one that will only benefit South Africa. We want it and will make sure it benefits the entire African continent.”
Dr Soumya Swaminathan, WHO chief scientist, noted the timelines for when COVID-19 vaccines can be produced in SA depend on whether there is a tried and tested technology that can be much more easily transferred to the facility.
“There’s already a pilot plant there [SA], so all we would need is to put in some equipment and then train the local workforce on the new process. In that situation, we could even expect to see – within nine to 12 months – vaccines being produced in South Africa.”
Swaminathan added: “South Africa has huge capacity in clinical trials, in R&D and the regulatory agency is very strong and up to speed with all the requirements. This is why the hub was selected to be in South Africa because we had a number of criteria against which the applications were ranked, and certainly on the African continent, this consortium fulfilled many of the criteria that are needed.”