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In world first, South Africa’s Afrigen Biologics makes mRNA COVID vaccine using Moderna data

South Africa’s Afrigen Biologics has used the publicly available sequence of Moderna Inc’s  mRNA COVID-19 vaccine to make its own version of the shot, which could be tested in humans before the end of this year, Afrigen’s top executive said.

The vaccine candidate would be the first to be made based on a widely used vaccine without the assistance and approval of the developer. It is also the first mRNA vaccine designed, developed and produced at lab scale on the African continent.

The World Health Organization (WHO) last year picked a consortium including Afrigen for a pilot project to give poor and middle-income countries the know-how to make COVID vaccines, after market leaders of the mRNA COVID vaccine, Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna, declined a WHO request to share their technology and expertise.

The WHO and consortium partners hope their technology transfer hub will help overcome inequalities between rich nations and poorer countries in getting access to vaccines. Some 99% of Africa’s vaccines against all diseases are imported and the negligible remainder manufactured locally.

During the pandemic, wealthy countries have hoovered up most of the world’s supplies of vaccines.

Biovac, a partly state-owned South African vaccine producer, will be the first recipient of the technology from the hub. Afrigen has also agreed to help train companies in Argentina and Brazil.

In September, the WHO’s hub in Cape Town decided to go it alone after failing to bring on board Pfizer and Moderna, both of which have argued they need to oversee any technology transfer due to the complexity of the manufacturing process.

Moderna had no immediate comment on Afrigen’s announcement on Thursday.

Moderna’s vaccine was chosen by the WHO due to an abundance of public information and the company’s pledge not to enforce patents during the pandemic. It’s not clear what will happen after the pandemic ends and whether the company will try to enforce them again.

Petro Terblanche, managing director at Afrigen:

We haven’t copied Moderna, we’ve developed our own processes because Moderna didn’t give us any technology. We started with the Moderna sequence because that gives, in our view, the best starting material. But this is not Moderna’s vaccine, it is the Afrigen mRNA hub vaccine.


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