AFRICA – The WHO has initiated talks with USA based Moderna Inc to develop Covid-19 vaccines in Africa designed to help more developing countries access COVID-19 shots after rich nations bought up most of this year’s supply.
The operations, which are to be carried out in the WHO- backed African vaccine hub may delay a while due to lack of progress in talks with the U.S. company, a senior WHO official has said.
October last year, Moderna said it would not enforce patents related to its shot during the pandemic, raising hopes that other companies might be able to copy it and help boost COVID-19 vaccine production.
In practice, though, it is hard to replicate a vaccine without the information on how it is made, and the World Health Organization-backed tech transfer hub in South Africa – set up in June to give poorer nations the know-how to produce COVID-19 vaccines – has so far not reached a deal with the company.
“The talks have not yielded any results,” Martin Friede, WHO Initiative for Vaccine Research coordinator, said.
The case highlights the challenges faced by the WHO as it battles to expand vaccine production to help address the glaring inequalities between rich and poor nations in the pandemic.
More than three quarters of the 5.5 billion COVID-19 shots administered worldwide have gone to high and upper-middle income countries, which make up just over a third of the world’s population.
Currently, less than 3.5% of Africans are vaccinated against COVID-19, far short of its official target of 60%, John Nkengasong, director of Africa’s Centers for Disease Control, announced.
Moderna’s vaccine was chosen as an abundance of public information and its pledge not to enforce patents made the shot slightly easier to copy than some rivals.
“We have to make a choice now. The deadline is upon us; time to start ordering chemicals. We’ve chosen Moderna,” Friede said.
Still, even if the hub manages without Moderna’s help, it could take more than a year to get a distributable vaccine as clinical trials would only begin in the latter half of 2022, he added.
In May, the United States said it would support waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines in order to help speed an end to the pandemic, but the idea has faced opposition from pharmaceutical firms, which argue they need to oversee any technology transfer due to the complexity of the manufacturing process.
Pfizer and its partner BioNTech separately struck a deal in July for South Africa’s Biovac to help make around 100 million doses a year of their COVID-19 vaccine for Africa in the fill and finish process. Their shot, like Moderna’s, uses so-called mRNA technology.
Hub consortium partner Afrigen Biologics will produce the initial batch of doses, before transferring the skills and technology to local manufacturing partner, Biovac Institute – both are Cape Town-based – which will mass produce the vaccines.