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Picture: 123RF/S SILVER
Picture: 123RF/S SILVER

Cape Town-based biotechnology company Afrigen Biologics expects a decision in mid-July on partners to produce Africa’s first Covid-19 vaccine using the mRNA platform, the start-up’s MD says. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) picked Afrigen for a pilot project to give poor and middle-income countries the know-how and licences to make Covid-19 vaccines, in what President Cyril Ramaphosa called an historic step.

The “tech transfer hub” will make it possible for African companies to manufacture mRNA vaccines, the advanced technology used in Pfizer and Moderna shots, in nine to 12 months, the WHO said on Monday.

“The race is on to get manufacturing capacity in Africa to give us vaccine security,” Afrigen’s Petro Terblanche said.

“The fastest route for us to that goal would be to go with one of the vaccines that already has market authorisation ... However, there is place for other platforms, particularly in the area of stability, so it is not impossible that we will look at two different platforms,” Terblanche said.

Referring to the instability of mRNA vaccines, which require very cold storage, she said Afrigen could access technology to produce a “thermostable” mRNA vaccine that could be kept at temperatures of 2-8ºC. 

Afrigen’s R130m facility will be capable of producing a maximum of 10,000 vials a day of Covid-19 vaccines and it has partnered with local manufacturer Biovac, which can produce 30-million to 50-million doses a year to distribute across Africa, she said.

The ultra-sterile vaccine unit, with its whitewashed walls and warren of interlinked airlocked rooms, is still an empty shell. However, Terblanche said it should be fully operational by February 2022.

Research partners include leading SA universities and local genomics surveillance lab KRISP, which helped detect the Beta variant dominating a third wave of local infections.

The first step for Afrigen will see scientists sent to selected tech transfer partners in the US or Europe for training. This team will then train their partners at Biovac and others across Africa in a hub-and-spoke model.

“A safe, affordable vaccine ready to use in humans against Covid-19 will be our first vaccine candidate, to be followed by other vaccines important for Africa,” Terblanche said.



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