OPINION | South Africa mRNA technology hub gives hope to Africa

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While most African countries missed the global goal of fully vaccinating 10% of its population, other countries up north such as Germany and France are offering booster shots to their citizens.

While this may mirror the disparity between the Global North and Global South, there is a worrying Covid-19 vaccine disproportion in Africa itself.

World Health Organisation (WHO) data show that only 15 of Africa’s 54 nations have vaccinated 10% of their population against Covid-19. A handful of African countries have made strides in reaching that goal including South Africa that has vaccinated just over 20% of its  population.

On the flip side, the Reuters Covid-19 Tracker shows Guinea-Bissau has administered over 90 000 doses of Covid vaccines so far and worse, Eritrea is yet to receive supplies. The country has not managed to administer a single Covid-19 vaccine.

The rollout in other African countries has been impacted by various factors including supply and demand limitations as well as procurement problems. These have now raised critical questions about the distribution of vaccination across the African continent.

With all of this said, would Africa’s vaccine trajectory have been different if there was a more cost-effective way to procure vaccines for Africa? What would it mean for South Africa to host a mRNA technology hub and possibly produce the vaccine at an industrial scale? 

In June, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced its support for a South African Consortium to host the first ever Covid-19 mRNA Vaccine Technological Transfer hub. Technology transfer hubs are described as training facilities where the technology is established at industrial scale and where clinical development can be carried out.

The South African Consortium formed by Biovac, Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, Network of Universities and Africa Centre for Disease Control is the first of the 28 consortiums earmarked for the African continent.

By June, the WHO has selected the partners for the transfer yet by September it remains unclear what is deliverable despite the partnership roles that have been  clearly defined.

Hosting a mRNA hub

Biovac is taking a lead in the manufacturing of the vaccine in partnership with Afrigen Biologics. A number of  universities are expanding knowledge and the Africa Center for Disease Control continues to provide domestic and regional support.

Hosting a mRNA technological hub plays a crucial role in accelerating the development and manufacturing of Covid-19 vaccines to ensure that vaccines are readily available and affordable.

According to the Reuters Covid-19 tracker, Africa is currently reporting a million new infections about every 44 days and has reported more than 8,4 million since the pandemic began.

Countries such as Ethiopia and Tunisia continue to battle a rise in infection rates. This highlights the pressing need to find an African-focused solution to address Covid-19 especially since the continents’ healthcare systems are beleaguered by the pandemic.

Equitable access to the vaccine means sustainable procurement of affordable vaccines where local production can address health emergencies, strengthen regional health security and expand sustainable access to health products.

For over two decades there has been an increasing emphasis on the importance of local production and related technology transfer in the context of promoting equitable access to medicines and other health technologies.

Diversifying the manufacturing of health products geographically to complement existing production chains should be prioritised as this could contribute to addressing global needs.

The vaccines under the technology transfer programme means Biovac and Afrigen Biologics and vaccines will be the first recipients of cutting-edge mRNA vaccine know-how. The initiative will initially prioritise the mRNA vaccine but could expand to other technologies in the future which will accelerate research and development in Africa and give hope for current epidemics such as HIV/AIDS.

Public Private Partnerships are key in order for South Africa to be transparent, accountable and successful in hosting the mRNA technological hub.

We also need to work fast to save African lives. Africa needs – and is very much capable – of being at the forefront of medicine research in order to protect its most vulnerable.

*John Mdluli is SAHTAC Secretariat Lead (The Aurum Institute)
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