South Africa’s Afrigen to collaborate with US researchers on mRNA vaccines

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South African biotech company Afrigen will collaborate with researchers from the US National Institutes of Health on the development of the next generation of mRNA vaccines and drugs as part of an attempt to expand global access to innovative medicines.

Afrigen is at the heart of a World Health Organization-backed technology hub of scientists and pharmaceutical companies formed last year after global health authorities decried stark inequality in access to Covid-19 vaccines during the early stages of the pandemic.

The global health body said unequal access to shots was because of richer nations hoarding both supplies and manufacturing capacity.

Once fully functional, the hub is expected to provide low-income nations with access to mRNA vaccines and drugs, and not just those designed to fend off Covid. Global Covid vaccine supply now comfortably exceeds demand after significant shortages last year.

The collaboration between Afrigen and NIH would include knowledge-sharing for vaccine candidates to be deployed against HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, influenza and other diseases that constitute a significant health burden for poorer nations, the two partners said on Friday. Technical materials and skills will also be shared as part of the collaboration.

Petro Terblanche, managing director at Afrigen, said the collaboration would enable the hub to fast-track the manufacturing approval processes for its Covid vaccine candidate, which is based on Moderna’s vaccine.

The NIH is a co-inventor of the Moderna vaccine and the inventor of vital technology underpinning the Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer shots. Barney Graham, one of the scientists behind the research, said last year the US government, which funds the NIH, had “leverage” over manufacturers to broaden access to Covid vaccines globally because of the role it played in their discovery.

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Terblanche said Graham, now retired from the US federal government, had been involved in “most of the meetings” and that the NIH had been “very supportive and engaging” throughout. The discussions on the agreement, she said, had been initiated by the US health attaché in South Africa, a diplomatic official.

The pandemic has highlighted the extent to which access to effective drugs is tied to geopolitics, with big mRNA manufacturers under fire for allegedly giving preferential treatment to richer nations and ignoring the plight of poorer ones.

Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the WHO, said the programme was an effort “to counter the historical inequities in access to medicines and health products”.

“By democratising access to knowledge and the latest technologies, scientists in [poorer nations] should be able to make biologics and vaccines that meet the health needs of those populations,” she said.

Swaminathan told a briefing that the WHO’s backing of the South African hub started with the aim of addressing the manufacturing dependency of poorer countries on richer nations.

She added that the WHO has already set up a staff training hub in South Korea to ensure there would be a qualified workforce to prepare for any pandemic surges in the future.

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