WHO announces that six African countries will receive tech needed to produce COVID mRNA vaccines

A frontline health worker at a nursing home in Chlifa Baalbak receives her vaccine from an MSF medical staff member.

Lebanon 2021 © Tariq Keblaoui/MSF

NEW YORK/CAPE TOWN, FEBRUARY 18, 2022—Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia will be the first recipients of technology from the global mRNA technology transfer hub. The hub aims to support and facilitate technology transfer of the mRNA vaccine platform to interested manufacturers in countries in Africa, as well as other low- and middle-income countries, in order to eventually scale-up local manufacturing capacity for COVID-19 vaccines.

The hub’s research and development partner, South Africa’s Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, recently succeeded in producing micro-liter laboratory scale batches of an mRNA vaccine based on the publicly available sequence of the largely publicly funded Moderna vaccine, despite a lack of assistance from the corporation.

The timeline for the hub’s production of a final mRNA vaccine candidate, and eventual technology transfer to manufacturers, is considerable. Moderna must immediately share the mRNA technology and know-how needed for more manufacturers across the world to make COVID-19 vaccines and lend the hub technical assistance so other vaccine makers can more quickly boost the global supply, said Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Moderna should also immediately withdraw all patents and applications related to mRNA vaccines that the corporation has been granted in South Africa to reduce the intellectual property barriers to biosimilar vaccine production.

Kate Stegeman, Africa region advocacy coordinator for MSF’s Access Campaign, said today:

“MSF welcomes today’s announcement that six countries will receive technology from the WHO COVID-19 mRNA technology transfer hub in South Africa. This announcement marks a welcome milestone on the road to expanding vaccine manufacturing capacity in lower- and middle-income countries.

“It’s encouraging to see the mRNA technology transfer hub getting closer to developing and validating the world’s first open access mRNA vaccine production platform. The recent news that Afrigen has succeeded in making a full prototype of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine based on Moderna’s model is a really promising first step, but many more strides are needed—including developing a more heat-stable version, performing clinical trials, and developing a large-scale manufacturing process. These highly technical developments are needed alongside the hub offering training and technology transfer activities to manufacturers going forward.

“MSF urges the pharma corporation Moderna, which makes the vaccine closest to the one designed by Afrigen, to lend the hub technical assistance  to shorten the vaccine production timeline.

“While the hub is undoubtedly an important initiative today and for future pandemic preparedness, the fastest way to start vaccine production in African countries and other regions with limited vaccine production is still through full and transparent transfer of vaccine know-how of already-approved mRNA technologies to able companies with existing capacity that can be retrofitted to produce mRNA vaccines. Notably, MSF research has identified over 100 manufacturers across Asia, Africa, and Latin America with the potential to manufacture mRNA vaccines.

“Diversifying mRNA vaccine manufacturing capacity to low- and middle-income countries should be a global health priority. More regions producing mRNA vaccines as essential preparedness against infectious diseases could bolster the response not only to COVID-19 and future infectious diseases, but also potentially to existing ones such as malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV.”