Coronavirus Pandemic, Technology, Business, Pandemics, World Health Organization, Health, Cape Town, Africa, United Nations, Coronavirus Vaccine, South Africa

Coronavirus Pandemic, Technology

African effort to replicate mRNA vaccine targets disparities

A team of scientists in South Africa is assembling the equipment needed to reverse engineer Moderna's coronavirus vaccine. They are effectively making an end run around an industry that has prioritized rich countries in vaccine sales and manufacturing.

10/24/2021 9:47:00 AM

A team of scientists in South Africa is assembling the equipment needed to reverse engineer Moderna's coronavirus vaccine . They are effectively making an end run around an industry that has prioritized rich countries in vaccine sales and manufacturing.

CAPE TOWN , South Africa (AP) — In a pair of Cape Town warehouses converted into a maze of airlocked sterile rooms, young scientists are assembling and calibrating the equipment needed to reverse engineer a coronavirus vaccine that has yet to reach South Africa and most of the world's poorest people.

to share, including Biden administration demands on Moderna, has led nowhere.Until now, WHO has never directly taken part in replicating a novel vaccine for current global use over the objections of the original developers. The Cape Town hub is intended to expand access to the novel messenger RNA technology that Moderna, as well as Pfizer and German partner BioNTech, used in their vaccines.

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“This is the first time we’re doing it to this level, because of the urgency and also because of the novelty of this technology,” said Martin Friede, a WHO vaccine research coordinator who is helping direct the hub.Dr. Tom Frieden, the former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has described the world as “being held hostage” by Moderna and Pfizer, whose vaccines are considered the most effective against COVID-19. The novel mRNA process uses the genetic code for the spike protein of the coronavirus and is thought to trigger a better immune response than traditional vaccines.

Arguing that American taxpayers largely funded Moderna’s vaccine development, the Biden administration has insisted the company must expand production to help supply developing nations. The global shortfall through 2022 is estimated at 500 million and 4 billion doses, depending on how many other vaccines come on the market.

“The United States government has played a very substantial role in making Moderna the company it is,” said David Kessler, the head of Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. program to accelerate COVID-19 vaccine development.Kessler would not say how far the administration would go in pressing the company. “They understand what we expect to happen,” he said.

Moderna has pledged to build a vaccine factory in Africa at some point in the future. But after pleading with drugmakers to share their recipes, raw materials and technological know-how, some poorer countries are done waiting.Afrigen Managing Director Petro Terblanche said the Cape Town company is aiming to have a version of the Moderna vaccine ready for testing in people within a year and scaled up for commercial production not long after.

“We have a lot of competition coming from Big Pharma. They don’t want to see us succeed,” Terblanche said. “They are already starting to say that we don’t have the capability to do this. We are going to show them.”If the team in South Africa succeeds in making a version of Moderna’s vaccine, the information will be publicly released for use by others, Terblanche said. Such sharing is closer to an approach U.S. President Joe Biden championed in the spring and the pharmaceutical industry strongly opposes.

Commercial production is the point at which intellectual property could become an issue. Moderna has said it would not pursue legal action against a company for infringing on its vaccine rights, but neither has it offered to help companies that have volunteered to make its mRNA shot.

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Chairman Noubar Afeyansaid Moderna determined it would be better to expand production itself than to share technology and plans to deliver billions of additional doses next year.“Within the next six to nine months, the most reliable way to make high-quality vaccines and in an efficient way is going to be if we make them,” Afeyan said.

Zoltan Kis, an expert in messenger RNA vaccines at Britain’s University of Sheffield, said reproducing Moderna’s vaccine is “doable” but the task would be far easier if the company shared its expertise. Kis estimated the process involves fewer than a dozen major steps. But certain procedures are tricky, such as sealing the fragile messenger RNA in lipid nanoparticles, he said.

“It’s like a very complicated cooking recipe,” he said. “Having the recipe would be very, very helpful, and it would also help if someone could show you how to do it.”A U.N.-backed public health organization still hopes to persuade Moderna that its approach to providing vaccines for poorer countries misses the mark. Formed in 2010, the Medicines Patent Pool initially focused on convincing pharmaceutical companies to share patents for AIDS drugs.

“It’s not about outsiders helping Africa,” Executive Director Charles Gore said of the South Africa vaccine hub. “Africa wants to be empowered, and that’s what this is about.”It will eventually fall to Gore to try to resolve the intellectual property question. Work to recreate Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine is protected as research, so a potential dispute would surround steps to sell a replicated version commercially, he said.

“It’s about persuading Moderna to work with us rather than using other methods,” Gore said.He said the Medicines Patent Pool repeatedly tried but failed to convince Pfizer and BioNTech - the first companies out with an effective vaccine - to even discuss sharing their formulas.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, who is among the members of Congress backing a bill that calls on the United States to invest more in making and distributing COVID-19 vaccines in low-and middle-income countries, said reverse engineering isn’t going to happen fast enough to keep the virus from mutating and spreading further.

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“We need to show some hustle. We have to show a sense of urgency, and I’m not seeing that urgency,” he said. “Either we end this pandemic or we muddle our way through.”Campaigners argue the meager amount of vaccines available to poorer countries through donations, COVAX and purchases suggests the Western-dominated pharmaceutical industry is broken.

“The enemy to these corporations is losing their potential profit down the line,” Joia Mukherjee, chief medical officer of the global health nonprofit Partners in Health, said. “The enemy isn’t the virus, the enemy isn’t suffering.”Back in Cape Town, the promise of using mRNA technology against other diseases motivates the young scientists.

“The excitement is around learning how we harness mRNA technology to develop a COVID-19 vaccine,” Caryn Fenner, Afrigen’s technical director, said. But more important, Fenner said, “is not only using the mRNA platform for COVID, but for beyond COVID.”

___Cheng reported from London; Hinnant reported from Paris. Read more: The Associated Press »

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Thought they were working on an everlasting gobstopper. Good for them The world's high income countries should buy the vaccine patents and share them globally. That could save the world from the big drug companies greed.🤞🏽🤞🏽 zellieimani Capitalism is the real deadly virus. Having a recipe is one thing being able to cook, is another.

Madness smartdissent It's a disgrace that the US gov is paying these companies for a vax they will not share with the rest of the world. They should not have gotten one penny until the formulas were shared worldwide. NotAcquiescing Best of luck! This is why we have governments so they can do greater good and help save people, like in South Africa. Saving lives should be top priority. Not making greedy profits. It is so ridiculous. I do not how executives of Moderna can even sleep at night. moderna

Well it’s understandable but won’t benefit them in the long run to be known as the place that steals biotech IP.

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👏👏👏👏👏 Praying for the entire continent of Africa! 🙏 Necessity is the Mother of Invention. brianschatz The biggest problem is that this is Moderna’s only product. So while it doesn’t excuse their decision, it explains that they don’t have the same manufacturing capabilities of other countries or the revenue from other products to fund the company so it can give the vax away

This both fabulous and sad. It is sad because rich countries will clamor for booster after booster and toss away almost expired vaccines rather than help poor countries. “We’re all in this together” 💵💵💵 Why can't Moderna license the technology to the governments of other countries as a humanitarian measure instead of having them waste time and resources reverse engineering the vaccine?

Good. 🥲 In this one instance, I’ve no problem with it. It would be better if Moderna would donate vaccine, sell at a very reduced rate, or even give the recipe to the rest of the world. Corporate world doesn’t think that way. That’s a shame. even if they can make it they wont get much profit Africa is dirt poor

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Good luck to Africa! As they should. So now I guess we just have to wait for the new big medicine or vaccine break through to be developed in Africa. You can’t expect someone to put all the resources in R&D that Moderna put into this amazing technology, just to give it away for nothing. Why would it not be prioritized to rich countries?

'In this together' me bollix. Well done SA. I hope they have every success Yes. Biden Admin/U.S. is helping. Good luck with that ppl one mistake and you won't have to worry about some virus killing you. brianschatz This is great and all, but the WHO could also just approve Covaxin, which would get shots into arms a lot faster than this.

Good. Africa needs to go it’s own way. Go for it.

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It would sure be nice if we could just, you know, allow generics to be made.

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