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South Africa to host COVID vaccine tech transfer hub

June 21, 2021

In a bid to increase access to coronavirus vaccines in Africa, the World Health Organization is setting up a hub to share mRNA technology to produce the jab in the continent.

File photo: A laboratory technician works in a vaccine production plant.
The hub is expected to produce vaccines next yearImage: YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday that it is planning a technology transfer hub for producing mRNA coronavirus vaccines in South Africa.

The move aims to boost vaccine access across the African continent, where cases and deaths increased by almost 40% over the past week, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

"Today I am delighted to announce that WHO is in discussions with a consortium of companies and institutions to establish a technology transfer hub in South Africa," Tedros told a press conference.

"The consortium involves a company Afrigen Biologics & Vaccines, which will act as the hub both by manufacturing mRNA vaccines itself & by providing training to a manufacturer Biovac."

South Africa’s vaccination drive

When can the hub start vaccine production? 

WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said South Africa could start manufacturing the shot in nine to 12 months.

Mainly smaller companies and biotechs will be involved, but the WHO is also "in discussions with larger mRNA companies and hope very much they will come on board," Swaminathan said. 

The main producers of COVID-19 vaccines using mRNA technology are BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna. 

The WHO set up similar hubs before to provide know-how and training to local manufacturers and boost global production of influenza vaccines.

What woud the vaccine hub mean for Africa?

The hub is set to be the first COVID vaccine production facility in the African continent.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said that the hub initiative "will change the narrative of an Africa that is a center of disease and poor development."

As a result of the WHO-backed technology transfer, Africa will soon be able to "take responsibility for the health of our people,'' Ramaphosa said.

Ramaphosa stressed that it was "just not equitable and not fair" that some people were denied access to coronavirus vaccines because of where they lived.

EU vaccine aid for South Africa

Ramaphosa had earlier slammed what he called the "vaccine apartheid" created by rich countries. South Africa, along with India, had also called on rich countries to supporta waiver on COVID vaccine patents. 

"Today is historic and we see this as a step in the right direction but it does not distract us from our original proposal put together by India and South Africa that we should see a TRIPS waiver at the WTO," said Ramaphosa, referring to talks at the World Trade Organization (WTO) on the intellectual property waiver. 

South Africa accounts for nearly 40% of Africa's total recorded coronavirus cases. The country is currently suffering a rapid spike in infections amid a slow vaccine rollout, marked by delayed deliveries, among other factors.

Can a patent waiver speed up the COVID vaccination drive?

fb/rt (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)