Researchers at a biotechnology company in South Africa said they had almost completed a process to simulate the production of a messenger RNA vaccine against Covid-19, without the intervention of Moderna, the original manufacturer of this vaccine.
Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines in Cape Town produced only a few microliters of the vaccine, based on data that Moderna used to manufacture its vaccine doses. However, this achievement is a milestone in a major initiative launched by the World Health Organization (WHO), which was the establishment of a technology transfer center aimed at building vaccine manufacturing capabilities in low- and middle-income countries.
In this context, it should be noted that during the “Covid-19” pandemic, the developers of messenger RNA vaccines – “Modern” company, headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, and “Pfizer” company, with headquartered in New York City and BioNTech, headquartered in Mainz, Germany, shipped more than 70% of its doses to rich countries, according to a vaccine distribution analysis. On the other hand, the arrival of millions of doses of pandemic vaccines has been delayed in low- and middle-income countries that bought or promised them. Martin Fried, the WHO official responsible for coordinating the efforts of the Center for Technology Transfer, said: “Vaccines manufactured by Moderna, Pfizer and Biotech are still mainly allocated only to the richest countries.” “Our goal is to enable other countries to produce their own vaccines,” he continued.
Many steps are still waiting to be taken before the promising messenger RNA vaccine from the company “Afrigin” can be distributed to people in Africa and beyond. There is no doubt that a vaccine this year will not help curb the pandemic. Nevertheless, the World Health Organization has expressed hope that its production process will lay the groundwork for expanding the worldwide distribution of mRNA vaccines.
Gerhard Pukes, chief scientist at Africa – which is at the heart of the WHO-established Center for the Transfer of Expertise – also expressed his pride in helping with the first phase of the plan, which included the production of the messenger RNA that ‘ encodes an altered part of the coronavirus. “SARS-CoV-2”, which encapsulates this acid in lipid nanoparticles that deliver the vaccine to the cells of those vaccinated with it. He says, “We did not get help from the big manufacturers of ‘Covid’ vaccines, so we took on the task of proving to the world that it is possible to succeed, and even to to achieve it here on the African continent. “
It is noteworthy that the World Health Organization, when the Center for the Transfer of mRNA Technology was inaugurated in South Africa last June, asked the companies “Moderna”, “Pfizer” and “Biontech” to train low- and middle-income researchers . countries on how to make their own “Covid-19” vaccines. However, the three companies did not respond to this request. Therefore, the World Health Organization decided to proceed with its plan without the help of these companies. Farid says the World Health Organization has chosen to simulate the production of the “Moderna” vaccine due to the availability of more announced information on the development process, compared to the vaccines of “Pfizer” and “Biontech”, in addition to the fact that “Moderna” undertook not to enforce its patents during the pandemic. . Moderna did not respond to requests from the journal Earth
Commentary on the World Health Organization’s decision to simulate the manufacture of its vaccine.
With funding from countries including France, Germany and Belgium, South African researchers gradually began implementing the project at the end of September. A research team from the University of the Wittvatterrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, has taken the lead in taking the first step: making a nucleic acid molecule that serves as a model for use in messenger RNA synthesis processes. Although Moderna’s patent sequence of this DNA is controversial, researchers from Stanford University in California, USA, have included it in the online database Virological.org published in March last year.
“This did not deter us, because mRNA synthesis is a somewhat proprietary technology,” says Patrick Arbuthnot, director of gene therapy research at the University of Witvatterrand. Despite the delay in shipping the raw materials needed to carry out the task, the team completed it within 10 weeks and sent the bottles of messenger RNA to Afrigin in early December.
During this period, as the news of plans to mimic the Moderna vaccine increased to the knowledge of researchers around the world, they sent emails to the researchers of “Afrigin” to lend a helping hand. Some of those researchers who wrote to the company worked at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and did basic research on mRNA vaccines. “It was a unique opportunity,” said Pietro Terblanche, managing director of Africa. And she added: “I think a lot of scientists were frustrated by what happened in the distribution of vaccines, and they wanted to help save the world from this dilemma.”
On 5 January, the African researchers completed another difficult part of the task. They coated the messenger RNA with lipid nanoparticles made from a mixture of lipids. So far, Boukes says, the research team has not used Moderna’s own lipid mixture, but rather one made directly by the manufacturer of the machine that uses the team’s laboratory to produce lipid nanoparticles. The African research team plans to use Moderna’s own lipid mixture as soon as a final analytical tool arrives. Next, the team will analyze the synthetic formula to make sure it is a very narrow version of the Moderna vaccine.
The next set of challenges is expected to significantly increase vaccine production. In this regard, Jason McClellan, a structural biologist at the University of Texas at Austin, whose research was the basis for the development of many “Covid-19” vaccines, says that it is not surprising that South African researchers apparently managed to make a copy of Moderna’s vaccine, however, he adds that increasing production of the first dose of the vaccine will require more and more innovation from manufacturers.
For the next phase of the project, many companies in the Global South are expected to learn from Avrigen the methods of making the vaccine and try to make groups of it themselves, in preparation for testing its doses on rodents. The World Health Organization expects a copy of Moderna’s vaccine to be ready for first-stage human trials by the end of next November.
The fate of the vaccine over the next year remains a mystery. But in that context, Charles Goure, director of the Medicines Patent Pool in Geneva, Switzerland – an organization that works with the aforementioned center and is committed to expanding access to medicines and vaccines worldwide – said the initiative had absolutely no intention. to infringe Moderna’s patents. . ». Gore explained that laboratory research is generally not subject to patent rules.
Gore hopes that Moderna will patent the vaccine as soon as it is ready for use, or that by that time there will be alternatives available that companies can manufacture without fear of prosecution. Scientists at several universities are currently working on the development of the next generation of messenger RNA vaccines, which may be cheaper to make or may not require extreme cold storage conditions, such as those required by Moderna’s vaccine and the vaccine that is used together. manufactured by Pfizer and Pfizer. Biontech.
Although the pace at which these efforts are continuing will not meet the urgent need for vaccines across Africa, many of the continent’s researchers are excited about it. During the pandemic, it became clear the danger of relying on vaccines from rich countries and companies; Only 10% of the people of the brown continent are fully vaccinated. This initiative aims to help countries protect themselves. And here Olusoji Adeye, head of the Resilient Health Systems Organization in Washington, DC, explains that “the current imbalance in global health stems from the presence of power imbalances.” “The cure for the problem will come from the countries of the global south that are developing their capabilities and taking responsibility for the health of their people,” he adds.