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Biotech collaboration paves way for first African-owned COVID-19 vaccine

A collaboration between two leading biotech companies, the South Africa-based Afrigen and the Belgium-based Univercells will work together to develop a novel regional mRNA vaccine. The companies intend to confront the lack of local cost-effective production and the need for cold or super-cold chains that have hampered vaccination thus far.



Last year South Africa became the first African mRNA Vaccine Manufacturing Hub. At the time, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it was necessary for Africa to start producing a local COVID-19 vaccine. The hub consists of South African companies Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines and Biovac, a network of universities, and the Africa Centre for Disease Control.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa described the hub as a “landmark initiative” that “will put Africa on a path to self-determination” in terms of vaccine development and manufacturing capacity.

“We just cannot continue to rely on vaccines that are made outside of Africa because they never come. They never arrive on time. And people continue to die,” Ramaphosa told the WHO briefing.

The success of the project was heavily reliant on a Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver that South Africa and India had been fighting for, that would ensure a viable transfer of intellectual property. Regional Hubs are important because the over centralisation of vaccine production is not compatible with crisis recommendations for equitable access. Additionally, regional hubs would combine economies of scale with increased geographical diversification that would strengthen local production. That way supply chains become more efficient, delivery costs and timelines decrease, and operations make a smaller environmental impact.


The development of a local mRNA vaccine

A year later, two leading biotech companies Afrigen Biologics and Univercells group are collaborating on the development of the novel mRNA vaccine. The agreement between the principles aims to utilise the open-access intellectual property and intellectual property from partners to develop the vaccine and build expertise. It will also be working with eTheRNA, a technology company with the expertise to deal with vaccines and cold storage challenges.

During the signing, Afrigen, based in Cape Town, said it is working to facilitate the production of mRNA vaccines at more than 15 manufacturing sites in low- and middle-income nations worldwide.

President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses virtual conference on Africa Leadership Role in Coronavirus COVID-19 Vaccine Development and Access. [Photo: GCIS] CC BY-ND 2.0

Currently, African countries import 99% of all vaccines used and while in the rest of the world 60% of the global population is vaccinated, some lower-middle-income countries (LMICs) can barely cover 1% of their population.

An African-owned vaccine would help to close the gap in vaccine accessibility and coverage.

“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,” said Professor Petro Terblanche, Afrigen Managing Director, at the signing of the agreement.


“This agreement is an important step towards ensuring that everyone, everywhere – in Africa, and across low and middle-income countries (LMICs) – has access to life-saving vaccines and medicines.”

In addition to developing a novel vaccine, the collaboration intends to pioneer a new model of manufacturing for mRNA vaccines. The COVID-19 vaccine produced on the Univercells system, which has been named eTheRNA, will have improved thermostability, meaning it will resist losing potency at higher temperatures. This is critically important for easier storage and distribution in rural areas.

“[The technology] will allow for storage in normal fridges which are more accessible than -20 or -80°C freezers, especially in LMIC,” said Bernard Sagaert, Chief Operating Officer of eTheRNA.

“All of these technologies are needed for the end goal of making a vaccine accessible for low- and middle-income countries. We are very happy to be part of this initiative and work together to enhance the prospects of making vaccines more accessible globally.”

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