African scientists replicating Covid-19 vaccine to overcome disparities
Young scientists in Cape Town are assembling and calibrating the equipment needed to reverse engineer a coronavirus vaccine that has yet to reach South Africa and most of the world's poorest people.
The scientists are working to replicate Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine, and bypass an industry that has vastly prioritized rich countries over poor in both sales and manufacturing, the Associated Press said in a report.
The Cape Town hub is intended to expand access to the novel messenger RNA technology that Moderna and Pfizer used in their vaccines.
“The energy in the gleaming labs matches the urgency of their mission to narrow vaccine disparities,” the AP said.
The scientists are doing it with unusual backing from the World Health Organization, which is coordinating a vaccine research, training and production hub in South Africa along with a related supply chain for critical raw materials.
“We are doing this for Africa at this moment, and that drives us,” said Emile Hendricks, a 22-year-old biotechnologist for Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, the company trying to reproduce the Moderna jab. "We can no longer rely on these big superpowers to come in and save us.”
Some experts see reverse engineering — recreating vaccines from fragments of publicly available information — as one of the few remaining ways to redress the power imbalances of the pandemic.
Only 0.7% of vaccines have gone to low-income countries so far, while nearly half have gone to wealthy countries, according to an analysis by the People's Vaccine Alliance.
That WHO, which relies upon wealthy countries and the pharmaceutical industry for its continued existence, is leading the attempt to reproduce a proprietary vaccine demonstrates the depths of the supply disparities.
The U.N.-backed effort to even out global vaccine distribution, known as COVAX, has failed to alleviate dire shortages in poor countries. Donated doses are coming in at a fraction of what is needed to fill the gap.
Meanwhile, pressure for American and European drug companies to share has led nowhere.
Until now, WHO has never directly taken part in replicating a novel vaccine for current global use over the objections of the original developers.
Dr. Tom Frieden, the former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has described the world as “being held hostage” by Moderna and Pfizer, whose vaccines are considered the most effective against COVID-19.
The novel mRNA process uses the genetic code for the spike protein of the coronavirus and is thought to trigger a better immune response than traditional vaccines.
American taxpayers largely funded Moderna's vaccine development.
Moderna has pledged to build a vaccine factory in Africa at some point in the future. But after pleading with drugmakers to share their recipes, raw materials and technological know-how, some poorer countries are done waiting.
Afrigen Managing Director Petro Terblanche said the Cape Town company is aiming to have a version of the Moderna vaccine ready for testing in people within a year and scaled up for commercial production not long after.
“We have a lot of competition coming from Big Pharma. They don’t want to see us succeed," Terblanche said. "They are already starting to say that we don’t have the capability to do this. We are going to show them.”
If the team in South Africa succeeds in making a version of Moderna’s vaccine, the information will be publicly released for use by others, which the U.S. pharmaceutical industry strongly opposes.
Commercial production is the point at which intellectual property could become an issue. Moderna has said it would not pursue legal action against a company for infringing on its vaccine rights, but neither
Zoltan Kis, an expert in messenger RNA vaccines at Britain’s University of Sheffield, said reproducing Moderna’s vaccine is “doable” but the task would be far easier if the company shared its expertise. Kis estimated the process involves fewer than a dozen major steps. But certain procedures are tricky, such as sealing the fragile messenger RNA in lipid nanoparticles, he said.
“It’s like a very complicated cooking recipe,” he said. “Having the recipe would be very, very helpful, and it would also help if someone could show you how to do it.”
A U.N.-backed public health organization still hopes to persuade Moderna that its approach to providing vaccines for poorer countries misses the mark. Formed in 2010, the Medicines Patent Pool initially focused on convincing pharmaceutical companies to share patents for AIDS drugs.
“It’s not about outsiders helping Africa,” said Charles Gore, the head of Medicines Patent Pool, a U.N.-backed public health organization. “Africa wants to be empowered, and that’s what this is about.”
He said the Medicines Patent Pool repeatedly tried but failed to convince Pfizer and BioNTech - the first companies out with an effective vaccine - to even discuss sharing their formulas.
Campaigners argue the meager amount of vaccines available to poorer countries through donations, COVAX and purchases suggests the Western-dominated pharmaceutical industry is broken.
“The enemy to these corporations is losing their potential profit down the line,” Joia Mukherjee, chief medical officer of the global health nonprofit Partners in Health, said. “The enemy isn’t the virus, the enemy isn’t suffering.”
Back in Cape Town, the promise of using mRNA technology against other diseases motivates the young scientists.