Africa: Towards Africa's First MRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub

A colorized scanning electron micrograph of a cell (teal) infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (pink) (file photo).

Brazzaville — The World Health Organization (WHO), a South African consortium and partners from COVAX, are working to set-up a technology transfer hub for mRNA vaccines in South Africa to help boost and scale up vaccine production in Africa.

The initiative marks "a major advance in efforts to build vaccine development and manufacturing capacity that will put Africa on a path to self-determination," said South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, at the launch of the initiative in June.

Yet making mRNA vaccines is a complex business, there are many steps to take before safe and effective mRNA vaccines can be made in Africa. Dr Bartholomew Dicky Akanmori, Regional Adviser for Vaccine Research and Regulation with the WHO Regional Office for Africa, explains.

What is the technology transfer hub?

The technology transfer hub in South Africa will teach African manufacturers how to make mRNA vaccines, like the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, here in Africa.

Foreign manufacturers will share techniques with local institutions and WHO and partners will bring in production know-how, quality control and will assist with the necessary licenses.

There will be a training centre with all necessary equipment in place for African manufacturers to learn. The manufacturers will pay for their staff to receive training, which must be completed before they can start production.

Several partners have signed up take part, including the Medicines Patent Pool, Afrigen Biologics, the Biologicals and Vaccines Institute of Southern Africa, the South African Medical Research Council and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hubs like this exist all over world. For example, scientists at Oxford University shared their techniques with AstraZeneca, which then made the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines. The hubs show producers the formulas needed to make quality, safe and effective vaccines.

Can't African countries already manufacture vaccines?

The vaccines being made in Africa, like those for yellow fever or tetanus, use a simple technology in which scientists take the bacteria, grow the toxin from the bacteria, and then make it incapable of acting.

New technologies are needed to make mRNA vaccines. It is far more complex process and there is no room for error, so the correct transfer of knowledge is absolutely crucial. This is why we need technology transfer hubs.

When will mRNA COVID-19 vaccines be made in Africa?

It's hard to say. We started working to set up the hub in South Africa earlier this year and this work is still going on. It depends on several factors, including funding, a willingness to transfer technologies and the ability of local institutions to absorb knowledge.

However, the assumption is that knowledge transfer will move faster than we've seen before, in the same way that COVID-19 vaccines were developed in record time.

Once all the elements are together, we expect the training to take at least six months.

What is the long-term vision for vaccine manufacturing in Africa?

The long-term plan is self-sufficiency, for a future where Africa makes enough vaccines for its own people, but right now Africa imports around 90% of its vaccines.

The technology transfer hub will help to change this, helping African manufacturers to move to more advanced levels of production where they can make mRNA vaccines from start to finish without any outside support.

Many other vaccines use the same mRNA technology that we'll be transferring, such as vaccines against Ebola, Lassa Fever and Marburg, and eventually this mRNA technology could even be used to produce vaccines against HIV or tuberculosis.

The hub has a research and development arm, which can identify new ways to use this technology. There are also plans to establish a second hub in another African country.

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