South Africa bags first mRNA tech transfer hub

For a world clutching at the straws, there is palpable excitement about a first tech transfer hub to produce mRNA vaccines in Africa.

The statement from WHO on the South African consortium that has bagged the first COVID mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub, is scant on the details particularly on licensing terms. It is not clear whether for instance, such a hub, would work with the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool. (See our earlier story on this). Neither the press release nor the statement of DG Tedros has any mention of C-TAP.

In April, WHO issued a call for expressions of interest to establish technology transfer hubs for COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, and it received 50 proposals, WHO has said.

WHO has said:

“The consortium involves a company called Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, which will act as the hub both by manufacturing mRNA vaccines itself and by providing training to a second manufacturer called Biovac. In time, Afrigen could provide training to other manufacturers in Africa and beyond. The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention will provide guidance through the Partnership for African Vaccines Manufacturing.”

…“We are now in negotiations with several companies that have indicated interest in providing their mRNA technology to the hub. This selection will be based on how advanced the technology is, in terms of clinical efficacy data, and on the terms under which the company is willing to share its technology.”

Top officials indicated that it would be faster to produce approved mRNA vaccines, while new vaccine candidates would need to go through clinical trials.

(Unfortunately we did not get a chance to ask our question at the briefing announcing the new hub.)

In a statement, Kate Stegeman, Advocacy Coordinator, MSF Access Campaign in South Africa said:

“What needs to happen next is Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech must immediately share their mRNA technology with the hub so that many more mRNA vaccines can be produced independently by manufacturers in South Africa and more broadly on the African continent, as soon as possible.

“All pharmaceutical corporations that share their technology with the hub through technology transfer agreements must do so in a transparent and non-restrictive way to maximize the chance of success: any licenses must include all low- and middle-income countries, and technology recipients must be free to build on the platform technology to tackle other health threats.”

The lack of sufficient transparency around the creation of hubs, under the aegis of the ACT Accelerator is problematic. Nevertheless, this development is welcome considering the potential it generates for manufacturing capacities in Africa even if in the medium term.

It is not evident how such hubs will address current challenges. After all, in Africa, the number of cases and deaths increased by almost 40% in the past week, and in some countries the number of deaths tripled or quadrupled, WHO has said.

What was interesting note was the strong assertion at the event from South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa suggesting that while the mRNA tech hub was a welcome initiative, he believed that the TRIPS waiver would go further to facilitate the sharing of technology.

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