Biotech Companies’ Agreement Paves Way for First African-Owned COVID-19 Vaccine
A laboratory technician at South Africa’s mRNA hub, Afrigen.

One year since the establishment of the mRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub, a collaboration between two leading biotech companies – Afrigen Biologics and the Univercells group – was announced on Tuesday, paving the way for the development of the first-ever African-owned COVID-19 vaccine through open-access intellectual property. 

Using intellectual property from partners, the collaboration between the South Africa-based Afrigen and the Belgium-based Univercells will focus on the development of a novel mRNA vaccine.

The companies intend to collectively tackle two major challenges that have hampered COVID-19 vaccine rollout in Africa and other low- and middle-income countries (LMICs): lack of local cost-effective production, and the need for cold- or super-cold chains. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that there is a pressing need to build African capabilities in vaccine development and manufacturing. Without the capacity to make their own vaccines, too many countries haven’t been able to access them,” said Professor Petro Terblanche, Afrigen managing director, speaking at an event to mark the signing of the agreement.  

“This agreement is an important step towards ensuring that everyone, everywhere – in Africa,  and across low and middle-income countries (LMICs) – has access to life-saving vaccines and medicines.” 

The collaboration will be hosted by Afrigen in Cape Town, South Africa. Afrigen hosts the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global mRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub and is working to facilitate the production of mRNA vaccines at over 15 designated manufacturing sites in LMICs globally. 

The agreement, and the eventual vaccine produced, will build on expertise developed using the hub.  

Local production and heat-stable vaccine  

Belgian Minister of Development Co-operation, Meryame Kitir, and WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, during a visit to South Africa’s mRNA vaccine hub in February.

At present, African countries import 99% of all the vaccines they use. While more than 60% of the global population has been fully vaccinated, some LMICs have yet to cover 1% of their population. 

An African-owned COVID-19 vaccine is a critical step in closing the gap in vaccine accessibility and coverage. 

Furthermore, cold chain storage and distribution are additional hurdles to the roll-out of existing mRNA vaccines, made by Pfizer and Moderna. The agreement paves the way for the production of an mRNA vaccine that can be used in regular refrigerators, making it easier to store and distribute in rural and remote locations where few people are currently vaccinated. 

Speaking on the partnership with the WHO mRNA Transfer Hub, Martin Friede of WHO Vaccines and Biologicals said: “This unique partnership model enables the sharing of information, technology and human capital, and has the potential to shape vaccine production worldwide. The WHO and its partners are committed to  ensuring that we build a robust system to further the cause of vaccine equity and access.” 

New model of manufacturing mRNA vaccines 

In addition to developing a novel vaccine, the collaboration intends to pioneer a new model of manufacturing for mRNA vaccines.

Quantoom Biosciences, a Univercells company, is developing an mRNA production technology that encompasses all the steps of RNA production, from sequence construct to large-scale production, which allows for rapid growth and scale-up.

The technology was built with distributed and decentralized manufacturing in mind, which ensures that processes can be easily transferred across LMICs. 

The COVID vaccine produced on the Univercells system – which has been named eTheRNA – will have improved thermostability, meaning it will resist losing potency at higher temperatures. This is critically important in LMICs.

[The technology] will allow for storage in normal fridges which are more accessible than -20 or -80°C freezers, especially in LMIC,” said Bernard Sagaert, Chief Operating Officer of eTheRNA. 

“All of these technologies are needed for the end goal of making a vaccine accessible for low and middle income countries. We are very happy to be part of this initiative and work together to enhance the prospects of making vaccines more accessible globally.

Image Credits: Rodger Bosch for MPP/WHO, Kerry Cullinan.

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