An effort led by the World Health Organization (WHO) to increase vaccine availability to middle and low income nations had its first breakthrough Thursday, when a South African biotechnology company revealed it created a near-copy of the Moderna Covid vaccine.
Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, based in Cape Town, South Africa, announced Thursday that it has made microliters of a Moderna vaccine-clone.
The company is working on cloning the vaccine as a part of the WHO’s effort to make technology and treatments related to Covid more widely available around the world.
Around 70 percent of the world’s mRNA vaccines – the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech shots – have been given to high incomes nations, leaving lower and middle income countries vulnerable to the virus.
Only around 11 percent of Africans are vaccinated, according to Our World in Data, with some countries having vaccinated less than one-in-ten residents.
Afrigen, a South African biotechnology company, believes that it has successfully recreated the Moderna Covid vaccine in a lab. It is the first step in a major effort to make the shots more available in low and middle income countries. Pictured: Afrigen scientists work in a company lab
Moderna has said that it will not enforce its patents on its vaccine during the pandemic, making the shot the prime candidate for this kind of replication (file photo)
‘Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccines are mainly still going to just the richest countries… Our objective is to empower other countries to make their own,’ Martin Friede, the WHO official coordinating the effort, told Nature.
This is just the first on many steps in the process of recreating and launching a new version of the Moderna shot that will be cheaper and more accessible for these countries.
It will likely not be available for use in people until next year, but the researchers have now gotten over one of the first major humps.
The vaccine was produced without help from Moderna, Pfizer or BioNTech. The WHO said it reached out the firms, but did not receive help.
Africa has struggled to access the Covid vaccines, with only around 11% of the continent’s population fully vaccinated. The researchers hope the breakthrough discovery will be the first step to eventually making the shots widely available on the continent. Pictured: A child in Johannesburg, South Africa, receives a shot of a COVID-19 vaccine on October 21
‘We didn’t have help from the major COVID vaccine producers,’ Gerhardt Boukes, chief scientist at Afrigen, said.
‘So we did it ourselves to show the world that it can be done, and be done here, on the African continent.’
Moderna’s shot was chosen since the company said it would not enforce its patents during the pandemic and more information on it was available publicly.
The effort began at the University of Witwaterstrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Using data published online by researchers at Stanford University, they developed a DNA molecule that could serve as a template to synthesize the mRNA needed to create the base of the vaccine.
Afrigen then became the center of the WHO’s initiative, and upon starting the endeavor to recreate the shot.
Upon taking on the project, the company reports receiving offers of assistance from scientists around the world, including some at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the U.S.
Now that Afrigen has cleared the first hurdle, the company hopes Moderna will assist them – or at least not get in their way – going forward.
Moderna has not been as vocal as Pfizer on the issue of potential waiving or circumventing patents for the vaccines, but the company has staked a claim over the shots it develops and distributes.
The company has got into a spat with the NIH over who invented the mRNA vaccines, with the agency claiming three of its scientists deserved to be names as co-inventors on the patent – though the firm disagreed.
Stephane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, also said last year that an effort to have the federal government waive patent rights over the vaccines would do little to actually make the vaccines more widely available.
The WHO and other experts who worked on the effort to clone the Moderna shot are now hoping the Moderna will license its vaccine to companies in many low and middle income nations so it can be cheaply produced generically without fear of the company taking legal action.
Nature reports that Moderna did not comment on the matter.