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.
“Covid-19 has demonstrated the importance of investments in science, technology and innovation. Therefore, preparing for future pandemics is key and so the WHO mRNA global hub is a critical building block to ensure that South Africa and the whole continent has the production capacity that is essential for equitable vaccine rollout,” said Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology of South Africa.
“The mRNA technology is not only for COVID-19, but we also hope it can be adapted to help us in the fight against HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, which is why we’re investing heavily, alongside international partners, in this initiative.”
Based on the vision of the Government of South Africa for diversifying vaccine manufacturing and specifically accelerating vaccine production in Africa, a consortium including the Medicines Patent Pool, Biovac, Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation, the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), a network of universities and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are driving forward the initiative.
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.
“We’re not out of the woods yet and we are likely to be hit by new COVID-19 variants and a fifth wave that coincides with our winter season, which would compound our flu and cold season. However, we can reduce the impact by ensuring most people are vaccinated, especially the most vulnerable groups,” said the South African Health Minister, Dr Joe Phaahla.
“The new hub is not just for South Africa, it provides a one stop shop for low- and middle-income countries across the world to benefit from the technology transferred, along with the know-how, so they can also produce mRNA vaccines, which is critical if we are to end vaccine inequity.”
Afrigen, which is part of WHO’s mRNA consortium, has already gained international plaudits as it announced it had developed its own version of an mRNA shot, based on the publicly available data on the composition of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, which will be tested in the coming months.
The mRNA global hub is designed to serve low- and middle-income countries and will empower countries to not only be able to make their own mRNA vaccines but ultimately to have the choice of which vaccines they want to make. Manufacturers from low- and middle-income countries are therefore encouraged to express their own interest so they can receive training, technology transfer and any necessary licenses. WHO and partners will bring in the production know-how, quality control and necessary licenses to a single entity to facilitate a broad and rapid technology transfer to multiple recipients.
“The pandemic has highlighted the need for increased local production of vaccines globally, especially in low- and middle-income countries,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization.
“The WHO mRNA global hub is a major step in that direction, by sharing technology and building on the capacity and scientific expertise that already exists in South Africa.”
The global hubs will act as training facilities where technology is established at industrial scale and clinical development performed. WHO will compliment this activity and assist other countries in Africa and other low- and middle-income countries to strengthen biomanufacturing capacity as well as regulatory capacity.
Dr Matshidiso Moeti, Regional Director of World Health Organization Regional Office for Africa, said, “the mRNA hubs provide an unprecedented opportunity for capacity development, putting Africa on the path to self-reliance. This initiative will enable the continent to better protect against outbreaks, control the COVID-19 pandemic and develop new vaccines, accelerating the elimination of deadly diseases such as HIV, malaria and tuberculosis. We are opening the door to better health and wellbeing for our people.”