Tedros Celebrates WHO’s ‘Baby’, The mRNA Hub in South Africa


WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus greets Afrigen CEO Petro Terblanche.

CAPE TOWN – “Our baby is in good hands and will get stronger,” World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told Afrigen CEO Petro Terblanche during a visit to the South African company which was chosen by the WHO as a “hub” to make mRNA vaccines and then share the technology with other countries.

Tedros, accompanied by Meryame Kitir, Belgium’s Minister of Development Cooperation and Urban Policy, met a phalanx of South African officials during a tour of the hub and related facilities at the forefront of the country’s COVID-19 response on Friday.

The mood of the delegation was celebratory as Terblanche’s facility has recently completed an mRNA vaccine based on Moderna’s ‘recipe’, and is preparing for this vaccine to go enter clinical trials.

Tedros said that the WHO believed that the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic will end this year, but only if 70% of the global population is vaccinated.

“More than half of the world’s population is now fully vaccinated, and yet 84% of the population of Africa is yet to receive a single dose,” said Tedros.

“Much of this inequity has been driven by the fact that globally, vaccine production is concentrated in a few mostly high-income countries. One of the most obvious lessons of the pandemic is the urgent need to increase local production of vaccines, especially in low and middle-income countries,” said Tedros, explaining that this was why the WHO had decided to set up a hub to develop and share mRNA know-how for this pandemic and other diseases.

The central aim is to develop a training facility where mRNA technology is developed to the scale required for mass production of vaccines and then for that full package of technology to be transferrable to multiple recipients in low- and middle-income countries.

Tedros shrugs off BioNTech report

“If the owners of mRNA vaccine technology share their knowledge with the hub, we could expedite manufacturing, removing the need for large political trials and cutting development and approval time but at least one year,” said Tedros.

Tedros shrugged off a report that a BioNTech-related company had tried to undermine the mRNA hub, instead promoting a fill-and-finish operation for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine involving Europe and a South African company instead.

“To be honest, we need both,” he added. “They’re partnering with countries – I think three countries who would like to start with fill and finish start production – and have increased the availability of vaccines. Is that bad?  It’s not. It’s good,” but he appealed for them to also share their technology with the mRNA hub.

However, South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla said that half the country’s vaccine stock was bought from BioNTech-Pfizer and it would be “worrying” if the company wanted ti undermine the hub.

“We will not actually allow any private company to protect its interests by preventing others from accessing knowledge and know-how,” said Phaahla.

Meryame Kitir, Belgium’s Minister of Development Cooperation and Urban Policy, and Dr Tedros.

Better than TRIPS waiver, says Belgium’s Minister

Kitir described Afrigen’s vaccine development as a “breakthrough”, and said that the hub is “showing the world how to solve the fight against inequality”.

Belgium, France, Germany, Norway and the European Union have invested heavily in the mRNA hub, which is estimated to cost $100-million over the next five years.

“We must look beyond charity and seek structural solutions,” Kitir urged. “Donations are still important, but more is required, and that is why I have invested in projects that increase the local productions of vaccines, and I’m proud of this initiative in South Africa.

“The position of Belgium is that vaccines should be a public good. We have been having discussion about patent waiver for two years and the only conclusion that we can say today is that everyone is open for dialogue,” added Kitir. Belgium, which is home to many biotechnology companies, has been reluctant to support the TRIPS waiver proposed by South Africa.

Kitir said that the hub was a “better solution than the patent waiver because you make the country self resilient, and there is a there is a formula and it is open”.

When asked whether Belgian biotech companies were likely to support the mRNA hub and share their knowledge, Kirir could only name one – Universal Pharma – that had been in touch with Afrigen, adding that it was working in Senegal to share its know-how on vaccines.

According to the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA), which represents pharmaceutical companies around the world including Pfizer and Moderna, South Africa’s hub “adds to the options companies may choose in developing partnerships and needs to be weighed against an increasingly crowded landscape of other initiatives, including their own network of manufacturing partners”. 

However, it asserted that “experience has shown that technology transfers have higher chances of being successful if they are bilateral, business-to-business and voluntary”.

South Africa offered clear leadership

“I congratulate South Africa leadership throughout the pandemic in hosting this mRNA technology transfer hub, in chairing the ACT accelerator Facilitation Council and in initiating a resolution at the World Trade Organisation to temporarily suspend intellectual property rights on COVID-19 products. President Ramaphosa’s leadership was very clear continentally and also globally with leadership in ACT Accelerator facilitation council,” said Tedros.

For most of 2021, limited global vaccine supply led to huge disparities in COVID-19 vaccine access, leaving billions of people – especially in low- and middle-income countries – unprotected against serious disease and death from COVID-19. Low levels of vaccine coverage also provided the ideal conditions for new variants to develop.

While supply has now increased, access to any new formulations of COVID-19 vaccines – tailored specifically to new variants – will likely also be inequitable because manufacturing capacity remains limited to only a small handful of companies and countries.









Image Credits: WHO, Kerry Cullinan .

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