South Africa at the start of a Covid-19 vaccine the world has never seen - The Mail & Guardian

The World Health Organisation has enlisted a team of South African researchers to produce a new mRNA Covid-19 vaccine, but with no recipe to follow, it’s not an easy task

2021-11-28 04:02:00 PM

South Africa at the start of a Covid-19 vaccine the world has never seen - The World Health Organisation has enlisted a team of South African researchers to produce a new mRNA Covid-19 vaccine, but with no recipe to follow, it’s not an easy task

The World Health Organisation has enlisted a team of South African researchers to produce a new mRNA Covid-19 vaccine, but with no recipe to follow, it’s not an easy task

. In 2010, children in countries such as Morocco and Algeria missed out on life-saving meningitis vaccines amid a global shortage.At the time, a leading vaccine manufacturer was obliged to supply the United States and rich countries with doses first, recalls Mehdi Zaghloul, executive director of Morocco’s Sothema pharmaceutical company.

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of vaccines used in Africa are produced locally.Zaghloul continues: “As Africa, we need to ensure a minimum level of autonomy over our vaccine supply.”Now Africa could be set to turn the page on history — and the first chapter is being written, in part, in Arbuthnot’s lab.

The WHO’s crack team of South African scientistsIn June, theWorld Health Organisation(WHO) enlisted a team of South African researchers to crack the code for an mRNA Covid-19 vaccine and then teach others around the world to make it. South Africa will be the first of what the WHO envisions as several mRNA hubs, allowing more and more countries to produce the jabs locally. headtopics.com

Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna have refused to share theirvaccine recipeswith the WHO or partners. South African scientists are now piecing together what we know about the vaccines publicly — in part from patent applications — to develop an mRNA vaccine of their own that will be similar to Moderna’s.

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They hope to produce a prototype for testing in the next year that is adapted to new variants and that, unlike current brands, does not need the ultra-cold storage that poses problems for developing countries without sophisticated refrigeration systems.

How do mRNA vaccines work?Historically, vaccines have worked by using harmless versions of a germ — or proteins designed to look like a virus — to trick the body into churning out antibodies to fend off future illness.Messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccines are different, explains Kristie Bloom, Antiviral Gene Therapy Research Unit team leader for next-generation vaccines.

“Think of a cell inside your body as a little 3-D printer,” she says. “Messenger RNA is like a code that you send to that 3-D printer to get the cell to print — or produce — proteins.”In the case of mRNA vaccines, this code teaches cells how to produce the proteins needed to mount a defence against SARS-CoV-2. This response snowballs, growing bigger and triggering different responses by your immune system. headtopics.com

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Once the mRNA printing code has served its purpose, it simply disappears, Bloom says. Our cells — or printers — stop marking copies of the proteins. Still, the process leaves your immune system with a memory of how to fight the virus.Cracking the code: Scientists are closer than you think

But mRNA’s disappearing act, known as instability, is also what makes vaccines like these tricky, says Arbuthnot.Seated at a large round table, he is surrounded by stacks of papers, simple microscopes and, after almost a decade working on mRNA, piles of his black and red notebooks. His lab is the only one in Africa with a history of mRNA research, which is why the quest for an African Covid-19 vaccine begins here.

Naked mRNA degrades quickly. If mRNA in a vaccine disappears too soon, it won’t stick around long enough in the body to make the proteins needed to spark an immune response.To stop this and help mRNA deliver its cellular printing code, vaccines like Moderna’s clothe mRNA in a protective layer of fats, or lipids.

“We know what lipids they put in, but the ratio is also very important,” Arbuthnot says. “We have a rough idea, but we don’t know what it is exactly and that’s not even available in their patents.”Arbuthnot’s team is still figuring this out. Still, he believes they have already developed the mRNA sequence itself that will form the basis of their mRNA vaccine. headtopics.com

The end result won’t be a copy of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine but a totally new mRNA vaccine, he says.Do patents pose a threat?

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As long as it has chocolate its a good recipe.

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