In South Africa, agreements have been reached with Johnson & Johnson laboratories or even Pfizer to carry out the final stages of production of Covid vaccines locally. But the WHO wants to go further and set up a technology transfer center. It will make it possible to share all the technology for the messenger RNA vaccine, a vaccine that has proven its effectiveness against the coronavirus and is a carrier of hope for other diseases.
as reported from Johannesburg, Claire Bargelès
A Cape-based start-up, Afrigen, was chosen to become a training center. According to Martin Friede from the WHO, the transfer of technology should begin within the next few months. “For that, we found some academics, but also people who left the industry. They have the knowledge in their heads, but they need an infrastructure, such as the infrastructure that will be established in Africa, to implement the vaccine. ”
Once Afrigen has this knowledge, it can share it with the South African company Biovac, to start production on an industrial scale.
Glenda Gray, President of the South African Medical Research Council, welcomes this breakthrough for the country: “We want to go beyond the assembly and packaging of vaccines. By developing messenger RNA technology, we will be able to support the rest of the continent and also work with other pathogens such as tuberculosis, HIV or malaria. This means that we can be leading players on a global level. ”
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And according to Martin Friede, Afrigen will then call for training production companies outside the country: “South Africa has all the resources to become a center for research and development of vaccines. But what is important is that the hub is first for Africa. So in the beginning, we want the technology to be transferred to other producers in Africa and also to other producers elsewhere in the world. ”
According to the various partners, the first 100% South African doses could leave the factory in 2023.
The health crisis has highlighted the continent’s dependence on vaccine supplies. According to the African Union, 99% of vaccines are imported into Africa, and this imbalance had catastrophic consequences during the pandemic.
“Afrigen will develop a new RNA vaccine”
In theory, this is therefore a step forward in the vaccine race for Africa. But in practice, once the technology has been acquired, there are other steps to take to build a sustainable production project. RFI questioned Marie-Paule Kieny, chair of the Medicines Patent Pool, an organization that aims to improve access to key drugs in low-income countries. And she describes how the “hub” hopes to get around the patent issue.
RFI: What is the goal of this project?
M.-P. Kieny: The project is, of course, to get closer to producers who have manufactured vaccines based on messenger RNA technology, so Moderna and BioNTech, to see if these companies were ready to donate, to transfer their technology to the hub. It turns out that so far there is not much interest from these producers, who prefer to keep their know-how. But apart from that, we believe that for the RNA vaccine, it is not necessary to have access to patents because this technology has not been patented in Africa. So Afrigen will develop a new RNA vaccine, so to speak, based on components we know.
Achieving technology transfer is not enough. What more is needed to successfully build a successful vaccine production facility?
Building a factory and putting the right technology in it is actually quite feasible. It takes time, it takes good choices, it takes money, but it is possible. But after that, what is needed is that these factories, which are built to meet a one-time need, must be able to continue to exist when the demand for Covid vaccines disappears. Because otherwise all this will lapse in the end. And when there is another pandemic afterwards, everyone will say “but what happens then?” And we can say “yes no, you know, it’s been ten years since anything happened, because there’s no more interest.” So, in fact, one of the big challenges is a political challenge, it is to keep the interest in this factory and to continue to support its mission, even though we realize that the vaccines produced in a relatively small structure can actually be more expensive than the produced by a large multinational.
With what funding will South Africa be able to achieve these goals?
The cost of investment in the first two years for the development of the hub is estimated at $ 40 million. But after that, of course, when we have to build the plant, when we have to transfer the technology to other producers, it will increase. In the order of 100, 200, possibly 300 million dollars. So where should the money come from? We start with financing that comes from France, but after that we have to find an investment system and development banks will be able to lend money to Biovac. And, of course, the South African government will also need to invest, and I believe that the fact that it must invest will be the best proof of its political will to move forward.
Interview of Claire Bargelès