mRNA Covid-19 vaccine to be produced in SA under WHO deal

By Antony Sguazzin

(Bloomberg) – South Africa is planning to make vaccines locally using messenger RNA, the breakthrough technology of the global inoculation effort against Covid-19.

The manufacturing will be conducted by the state-owned Biovac Institute, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, told reporters Monday. That will be part of a broader vaccine technology-transfer hub in the country, he said.

The WHO is speaking to a number of drugmakers about establishing the hub, though the talks are so far mainly with “smaller companies,” said Soumya Swaminathan, WHO’s chief scientist. “We are having discussions with the larger companies with proven mRNA technology, we hope they come on board,” she added.

The mRNA vaccines may be produced in South Africa within 9-to-12 months, she said. Afrigen, a Cape Town biotech that makes adjuvants, will work with Biovac. The facility would be the first to use mRNA vaccine technology in Africa.

South Africa, along with India, has been at the forefront of a campaign at the World Trade Organization to push pharmaceutical companies to waive their intellectual property rights and share their technology for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments to help end the pandemic. A lack of manufacturing capacity in Africa is seen as one of the barriers to inoculating the continent.

Messenger RNA has been used for the first time to make vaccines during the coronavirus health crisis. Moderna Inc. of the U.S. and a combination of Pfizer Inc. and Germany’s BioNTech SE have harnessed the technology to make doses, which most trials have shown to be more effective than more traditionally made versions.

Just over 2.1 million of South Africa’s 60 million people have been vaccinated to date, most with the first of two shots of the Pfizer/BioNTech version. The country is heavily reliant on about 31 million single-dose Johnson & Johnson orders, which are due to be delivered over the course of the year.

– With assistance from Janice Kew.

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