In this file photograph taken on June 29, 2021, a medical official holds a vial of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine in Quimper, western France. Fred TANNEAU / AFP
A South African biotech firm said Thursday it has produced the first mRNA Covid vaccine made on the continent using Moderna’s sequence and that it will be ready for clinical trials in November.
Cape Town-based Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines is leading the pilot project, backed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the COVAX initiative, to tweak Moderna’s shot.
“At laboratory scale we have a vaccine that we now need to test,” Afrigen’s managing director Petro Terblanche, told AFP, adding that the first shot was ready during the second week of January.
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Tests on animals will start next month, “but the human studies will only start around November 2022,” she said after meeting a group of officials sponsoring the project.
Afrigen researchers sequenced the publicly available genetic code that Moderna used to make their vaccine, made the DNA and the RNA, and produced their own shot.
“We are the first to take the sequence developed by Stanford University and used by Moderna for their great vaccine, to design and develop a vaccine produced at laboratory scale,” she said.
And “we have completed the process from the design to a final formulation, but it’s small scale, but it’s a good start, it’s a fabulous start,” the laboratory chief said.
“This is the first yet very important step in empowering low- and middle-income countries to create a fully integrated vaccine production sector.”
She spoke after the UN-backed global Medicines Patent Pool gave the firm a 39 million euro ($45 million) grant.
Their mRNA vaccine can be kept at warmer temperatures, making it easier to store in low- and middle-income settings. The original jab requires expensive -25°C to -15°C refrigeration.
‘Health security, vaccine equity’
Charles Gore, MPP’s executive director, said in a statement that his organisation was “delighted to support Afrigen and its African partners to greatly expand local manufacturing capacity and reduce today’s gross inequity.”
The grant will cover the technology transfer hub’s work for five years, through 2026.
The French government funds the MPP’s activities linked to the hub.
“We will keep supporting this project… it’s a very important one for the world and for Africa,” the French ambassador to Pretoria, Aurelien Lechevallier, said after touring the lab.
The MPP is an international organisation that supports development of medicines for low- and middle-income countries.
Set up in July, the tech transfer hub will train other countries and hand out production licences to poor nations left out in the race for the life-saving shots.
“Its aim is to allow for greater and more diversified vaccine manufacturing capability, strengthen African regional health security and respond more equitably” to the current and future pandemics, a statement said.
Africa is the least vaccinated continent in the world.
More than a year after the world’s first Covid shot was administered and two years into the pandemic itself, just 11.3 percent of Africans have been fully immunised.
The problem has exposed Africa’s huge dependence on imported vaccines and its tech weakness compared with Europe, China and the United States.
To date only one percent of the vaccines used in Africa are produced on the continent of some 1.3 billion people, which has reported some 239,000 Covid deaths since the start of the pandemic.
Other players involved in the Cape Town hub set up in July are Biologicals and Vaccines Institute of Southern Africa (Biovac), the South African Medical Research Council, and Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).