By Ashleigh Furlong

Africa is poised to make a bold move that could turn around its fortunes in coronavirus vaccine manufacturing — taking the continent from import dependence to self-sufficient production of life-saving jabs for coronavirus, TB and maybe even one day for HIV.

Two manufacturers are establishing an mRNA vaccine technology-transfer hub at the tip of the continent that could let it produce its own vaccines, on its own terms. It’s a way to address just how exposed countries are if they don’t have their own vaccine manufacturing capacity. Africa imports about 99 percent of routine immunizations — and is the least vaccinated against coronavirus in the world.

One counter-measure to address this dearth of vaccines kicked off in October 2020, when South Africa and India, scrambling for options, proposed an intellectual property waiver at the World Trade Organization. The move would allow lower-income countries to produce coronavirus vaccines without fear of infringing on patents.

The proposal has remained deadlocked, with the EU being the major blocker. But even if the proposal were accepted, it wouldn’t address one important problem — how to actually produce the vaccines.

That’s how another idea took off: The World Health Organization pitched an mRNA tech-transfer hub that would let multiple companies share the knowledge of how to produce vaccines from start to finish. Even French President Emmanuel Macron gave his stamp of approval.

Two South African companies have been chosen as the initial partners for the first hub — Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines and Biovac. Afrigen will take the role of trainer in chief and transfer the technology for the mRNA vaccines to other sites, the first being Biovac.

The choice of mRNA technology was also no coincidence.

Before the pandemic, no vaccine or therapy produced using mRNA technology had ever been approved. But the runaway success of the BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna vaccines convinced the EU to completely pivot to mRNA for future supplies.

Its promise goes beyond coronavirus and holds the potential for applications related to cancer, Ebola or HIV. But it’s exactly this potential that makes pharmaceutical companies all the more keen to cling to their newly minted technology even more tightly.

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