As nations across Africa experience a third wave of COVID-19 infections, the World Health Organization (WHO) and a consortium of pharmaceutical companies have agreed to develop the type of vaccine that has proved most effective against the virus.
South Africa will host a technology transfer hub designed to build the continent’s capacity for creating its own vaccines using messenger RNA (mRNA), the technology behind the highly effective Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 shots.
The hub also will prepare Africa to address any future epidemics or pandemics, supporters say.
“This landmark initiative is a major advance in the international effort to build vaccine development and manufacturing capacity that will put Africa on a path to self-determination,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a statement.
If all goes as planned, the transfer hub could begin producing vaccines in nine to 12 months, according to the WHO.
Africa imports 99% of all its vaccines. The COVID-19 outbreak has left the continent reliant on other nations to produce vaccines, such as AstraZeneca doses provided through the international COVAX facility.
The rise of the Delta variant in India earlier this year caused that country to suspend exports of vaccines produced at the Serum Institute of India, including millions of doses bound for Africa. In some countries, the halt has left Africans with incomplete vaccinations. In others, health systems are left with expiring vaccines and nothing to replace them.
Technology transfer hubs are training facilities in which a technology is established at industrial scale and clinical development is performed. Under the plan with the WHO, Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines will serve as a manufacturing hub for mRNA vaccines.
Afrigen will share its knowledge with other African manufacturers to increase the continent’s capacity, including Biovac, a pharmaceutical company formed in 2003 in partnership with the South African government to build local capacity for manufacturing vaccines.
The program goes beyond current agreements between African companies and vaccines makers, such as Johnson & Johnson, to produce vaccines at African facilities. In those cases, African companies will fill vials and package vaccines produced elsewhere.
The WHO technology transfer hub still must secure agreements with mRNA vaccine makers to share their technology and get a waiver from the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.
“This important public-private partnership is an important step to building the infrastructure and human resource capacity to contribute to closing the gap in access to vaccines on the continent,” Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s Africa regional director, told the annual gathering of the African Development Bank in late June.
At the same virtual gathering, Dr. John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said building vaccine technology on the continent is crucial to bolstering Africa’s response to future crises.
“Ebola was a signal,” Nkengasong said during the virtual gathering. “We can also look at COVID-19 as an indication that something more severe will come if we do not strengthen our health defenses.”