South Africa will play a leading role in the pre-clinical research phase of Africa's first messenger RNA (mRNA) technology transfer hub for COVID-19 vaccines.
This according to the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) that welcomed the move that President Cyril Ramaphosa has hailed as a landmark initiative.
This comes after the World Health Organisation (WHO), together with the South African and French governments announced that the country would host what is to be Africa's COVID-19 vaccine production facility.
SAnews reported early this week that the "tech transfer hub" will pave a way for African companies to begin manufacturing mRNA vaccines.
The mRNA technology instructs cells to make a protein that generates an immune response in the body, producing antibodies that protect against disease, a key ingredient in Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.
The SAMRC said experts have described the mRNA technology as a viable alternative to the traditional vaccine platforms.
"This is not only because they have been shown to be more effective but also due to their capacity for rapid development, and their potential for low-cost manufacture. Furthermore, the mRNA vaccines were considered some of the most efficacious vaccines for COVID-19."
As part of the bid process, SAMRC said it joined forces with five top local universities, Biovac and Afrigen to create a sustainable technology and knowledge hub including Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).
The hub will work with a team of excellent scientists from the Witwatersrand University, University of Cape Town, University of KwaZulu-Natal, University of Stellenbosch and the North-West University, with the Afrigen group.
The consortium aims to bring to clinical trial a COVID-19 vaccine in 12 months, as proof of concept.
In addition, the medical research organisation said the goal is to manufacture and distribute locally developed vaccines for Africa-specific COVID variants, as well as future pathogens threatening the health of people on the continent.
SAMRC President and Chief Executive Officer, Professor Glenda Gray, believes that the organisation has a "traceable" national footprint and proven leadership role in supporting technology development, which may prove to be valuable.
Meanwhile, the SAMRC's Professor Richard Gordon said: "The announcement was an important first step to establish the mRNA technology in Africa which can allow the continent to leap-frog the vaccine manufacturing gap".
The hub is also expected to strengthen the genomic surveillance for new variants, as well as start the development of novel vaccine candidates for testing.
According to the SAMRC, the preclinical research capability - one of the critical elements in the establishment of drug development and a pharmaceutical industry - is already in development as well as the laboratory system to evaluate the effectiveness of vaccines.
"The candidate vaccine will be manufactured at the Afrigen facilities and the full-scale commercial production will be at Biovac," SAMRC explained.
Professor Patrick Arbuthnot from the Wits/SAMRC Antiviral Gene Therapy Research Unit (AGTRU) said repurposing the technology to counter COVID-19 is a significant activity of the unit.
"The intention is for these hubs to enable the establishment of production processes at an industrial or semi-industrial level permitting training and provision of all necessary standard operating procedures for production and quality control," he added.