South Africa’s mRNA vaccine hub to become self-reliant

Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) Minister, Dr Blade Nzimande, believes that COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of investments in science, technology and innovation as the country races to manufacture its lifesaving vaccine.

“Therefore, preparing for future pandemics is key and so the WHO mRNA global hub is a critical building block to ensure that South Africa and the whole continent has the production capacity that is essential for equitable vaccine rollout,” Nzimande added.

Nzimande, World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Health Minister, Dr Joe Phaahla, Belgium Minister of Development Cooperation and Urban Policy, Meryame Kitir, are currently visiting public and private sector partners that are collaborating to develop and build WHO’s global mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub locally.

“The mRNA technology is not only for COVID-19, we hope it can be adapted to help us in the fight against HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, which is why we’re investing heavily, alongside international partners, in this initiative,” Nzimande said.

The pandemic shone the spotlight on the limited global vaccine supply, leading to disparities in COVID-19 vaccine access, leaving billions of people – especially in low- and middle-income countries vulnerable to serious disease and death.

According to DSI, low levels of vaccine coverage also provided the ideal conditions for new variants to develop.

While supply has now increased, the department is concerned that access to any new formulations of COVID-19 vaccines – tailored specifically to new variants – would likely also be inequitable.

The department believes that this is due to manufacturing capacity that remains limited to a handful of companies and countries.

South Africa and France have also joined hands in accelerating vaccine production in Africa.

Meanwhile, a consortium including the Medicines Patent Pool, Biovac, Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, DSI, the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), a network of universities and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are driving the initiative.

Phaahla has warned that the country is not out of the woods yet in the fight against COVID-19.

“We are likely to be hit by new COVID-19 variants and a fifth wave that coincides with our winter season, which would compound our flu and cold season. However, we can reduce the impact by ensuring most people are vaccinated, especially the most vulnerable groups,” he stressed.

The new hub is not just for South Africa, said the Minister but provides a one-stop shop for low- and middle-income countries across the world to benefit and end vaccine inequity.

Last week, Afrigen, which is part of WHO’s mRNA consortium, announced it developed its version of an mRNA shot, using Moderna COVID-19 vaccine data.

“This virus shows how interconnected we all are and I am proud that Belgium – and other European Union countries – are now collaborating to build vaccine capacity everywhere,” said Kitir.

“Going forward we need more sharing of licenses, technology transfer and know-how so that in this pandemic and future ones as we can roll vaccines out quickly and equitably to the whole global population.”

The pandemic, according to Ghebreyesus, has highlighted the need for increased local production of vaccines globally, especially in poor countries.

“The WHO mRNA global hub is a major step in that direction, by sharing technology and building on the capacity and scientific expertise that already exists in South Africa.”

The global hubs will also act as training facilities where technology is established at an industrial scale and clinical development performed.

WHO will complement this activity and assist African countries and other low- and middle-income countries to strengthen biomanufacturing capacity as well as regulatory capacity.

WHO’s Regional Director, Dr Matshidiso  Moeti, said: “The mRNA hubs provide an unprecedented opportunity for capacity development, putting Africa on the path to self-reliance”.

“We are opening the door to better health and wellbeing for our people.” – SAnews