Collaboration to develop African-owned Covid-19 vaccine 

A collaboration between two biotech companies hopes to pave the way for the development of the first-ever African-owned Covid-19 vaccine. 

Afrigen Biologics and the Univercells Group have announced a collaboration to focus on the development of a new mRNA vaccine. The collaboration is being supported by mRNA specialist, eTheRNA, and comes one year after the establishment of the mRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub. 

The organisations will utilise intellectual properties (IP) from collaboration partners and will aim to develop new IP. Afrigen Biologics and the Univercells Group will look to solve a lack of local cost-effective production, and the need for cold- or super-cold chains – two major challenges that have hampered the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines in low-and middle-income countries (LMICs).  

African countries currently import 99% of all the vaccines they use. Whilst over 60% of the global population has been fully vaccinated, Africa and some LMICs are falling behind. As it stands, in total, Africa has only fully vaccinated 19% of its population1. Afrigen Biologics and the Univercells Group hope that an African-owned Covid-19 vaccine could work as a critical step to closing this gap.  

The organisations aim to produce an mRNA vaccine that is thermostable at temperatures used in regular refrigerators, making it easier to store and distribute in rural and remote locations where fewest people are currently vaccinated. 

Afrigen will host the new collaboration at its sites in Cape Town, South Africa. Afrigen hosts the World Health Organization’s Global mRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Huband is working to facilitate production of mRNA vaccines at over 15 designated manufacturing sites in LMICs across the world. The agreement, and the eventual vaccine produced, will build on the expertise developed through the Hub. 

In addition, both parties intend to develop a new model of manufacturing for mRNA vaccines. Quantoom Biosciences, a Univercells company, is developing an mRNA production technology that encompasses all the steps of RNA production. The technology has been built and distributed with decentralised manufacturing in mind – ensuring that processes can be easily transferred across LMICs. The system is designed to support the expansion of capacity and enables production at a large scale – allowing for rapid growth and scale-up.  

Speaking at an event to mark the signing of the agreement, Professor Petro Terblanche,Afrigen Managing Director, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that there is a pressing need to build African capabilities in vaccine development and manufacturing. Without the capacity to make their own vaccines, too many countries haven’t been able to access them. This agreement is an important step towards ensuring that everyone, everywhere – in Africa, and across LMICs – has access to life-saving vaccines and medicines.” 

Dr Martin Friede, Vaccines and Biologicals (IVB), World Health Organisation, said, “The WHO mRNA Technology Transfer Hub is designed to establish and share know-how on mRNA vaccines with LMICs globally. It will increase the capacity of LMICs to be self-sufficient in terms of outbreak response, and enables the addressing of regional needs through R&D. This unique partnership model enables the sharing of information, technology and human capital, and has potential to shape vaccine production worldwide. The WHO and its partners are committed to ensuring that we build robust system to further the cause of vaccine equity and access.” 

José Castillo, Co-Founder of Univercells Group and CEO of Quantoom Biosciences, said: “The existing global model for vaccine manufacturing has failed millions of people during the pandemic. We believe a new model is needed where manufacturers are not locked-in to any individual product but have technology which enables them to manufacture the right vaccine or medicine at the right time. Our system, which was initially developed with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is built with this flexibility in mind. The foundation has provided funding to Univercells for many years to support the development of biomanufacturing solutions that promote affordability and autonomy. We are delighted to work with our partners to produce a truly free-to-operate mRNA vaccine platform.” 



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