The World Health Organization officially launched a new mRNA vaccine technology hub in Cape Town on Thursday. The hub aims to provide a complete package of services along the entire vaccine chain, from scientific research to vaccine manufacturing and licensing.
The hub is seen as a major boost for science and health infrastructure in Africa and a way to help low- and middle-income countries end their reliance on higher-income countries for vaccine development and shipments.
Boosting vaccine production for African countries
As of March 2023, 69.7% of the global population had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Notably, this proportion still remains below 30% in low-income countries.
Cape Town's vaccine hub aims to offer equitable access to mRNA vaccines — and not just for COVID-19. The hub wants to develop and manufacture vaccines for other diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS as well.
"Ours is the vision of the mRNA Technology Transfer Hub beyond just COVID-19. The capabilities we are building are looking to empower us to deal with other future pandemics whose vaccines could use the same mRNA technology platform," said Blade Nzimande, South Africa's Minister of Higher Education and Science, in a press statement.
The initiative is a partnership between the public and private sectors, including Biovac, Afrigen and the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC).
"I am immensely proud of the achievement of all those involved in this project; in less than two years we have shown that when we work collaboratively, we succeed collectively," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a press conference on Thursday.
SAMRC is the main contributor of research from scientists in a network of South African-based universities, while Afrigen will establish mRNA vaccine production technology and Biovac will manufacture vaccines.
Meanwhile, WHO will offer financial and training support, establishing specialized training centers so that beneficiary countries can start producing safe and effective vaccines "as soon as possible."
The first mRNA vaccine developed in Africa
The hub was initially launched in July 2021. Since then, early pilot operations have created the first batches of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines.
Afrigen Biologics used the publicly available sequence of Moderna's mRNA COVID vaccine to make its own version of the vaccine — AfriVac 2121.
AfriVac 2121 is the first mRNA vaccine designed, developed and produced on the African continent.
Afrigen is now scaling up production for manufacturing vaccine patches so it can be first tested on humans in Phase I/II clinical trials. It is unclear when these trials will take place.
A bumpy road to vaccine equity
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted major disparities in access to health care in different parts of the world. By summer 2021, COVID vaccines had become widely available in higher income countries like the United Kingdom and United States. Meanwhile many African countries were yet to receive their first shipments.
COVAX, the UN-backed global vaccine alliance, was tasked with ensuring that middle and lower-income countries received access to COVID vaccines, but plans failed when wealthier countries bought the bulk of vaccines for themselves, leaving little for low-income countries.
Back in 2022, Amnesty International stated pharmaceutical giants "tragically failed to rise to the challenge” of the coronavirus pandemic.
It was this global inequality of vaccine access that led African leaders to develop their own COVID vaccine. The WHO also stepped in to help establish the recently opened mRNA transfer technology hub in Cape Town.
BioNTech also set up create its own mRNA vaccine manufacturing facilities in Rwanda and Senegal. These enterprises are not related, however, to the vaccine hub in Cape Town.
Edited by: Clare Roth