A Cape Town-based biotech startup has become the first African company to produce an mRNA vaccine on the continent, paving the way for the future of locally-manufactured vaccines.
South African scientists of a local biotechnology company have achieved a breakthrough, making an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine using publicly available Moderna data, the first time that an mRNA vaccine has been developed and manufactured at laboratory scale in Africa.
Cape Town-based Afrigen Biologics joined a World Health Organization (WHO) pilot project last year in an attempt to assist lower income countries to develop vaccine manufacturing capacity, following major vaccine manufacturers such as Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna electing not to make their technology and resources available to assist vaccine development in the developing world.
“We are a biotech startup with formulation capability,” says Afrigen Managing Director Petro Terblanche to FORBES AFRICA. “We have formulation capability, and when we saw other vaccine manufacturers working in the mRNA space, we started building facilities for that platform. When the [WHO] call went out, we thought it was a fantastic opportunity.”
The company received funding from several European countries as part of the project, which began late last year, and the successful manufacture of the vaccine is a major milestone for both Afrigen and the WHO – it is also the first major vaccine to be manufactured based on a widely-used vaccine without support from the original developer.
The WHO consortium partners hope that the knowledge transfer and technology will assist in reducing vaccine inequalities between countries, which has been a major challenge throughout the pandemic, with the world’s 50 least wealthy nations having received a mere 6.5% of vaccine doses.
“It’s significant that this is helping the world realize that the scientific and engineering base in South Africa is as good as anywhere else in the world,” continues Terblanche, clearly proud of Afrigen’s achievements. “We might not have as integrated a vaccine industry, but this will leapfrog us forward.”
The company hopes to begin human clinical trials as early as November of this year, and could see COVID-19 vaccines produced as early as next year, with Afrigen already planning on building capacity to upscale production. However, the significance of mRNA vaccine production capacity is not limited to the current pandemic, with the technology able to be applied to a host of illnesses.
“We are building capability and capacity on the mRNA platform for future vaccines for diseases of high burden here, it could be HIV, TB – this is the start of building sustainable and capable infrastructure for our own countries,” says Terblanche.