trolling through immaculate premises, the Director-General of the World Health Organization makes his way through television cameras and scientific equipment. It’s February 11 and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus visits the South African laboratory Afrigen, accompanied by Caryn Fenner, the company’s chief technology officer. The event is celebrated: the African biotech is the first on the continent to have manufactured a messenger RNA vaccine against Covid-19, based on the Moderna vaccine model.
“At laboratory scale, we have a vaccine that we now need to test,” said Afrigen CEO Petro Terblanche. There is still a long way to go before this vaccine can be marketed and find its first patients. Animal testing will begin next month, and human studies won’t begin until around November 2022. “We have completed the process from concept to final formula. It’s a small step but it’s a good start, it’s a fabulous start”, rejoiced the director of the laboratory.
Currently, the two behemoths Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech dominate a market protected by a series of patents that cover both the technologies and the production processes specific to messenger RNA. This pilot project, supported by the WHO and the Covax initiative, should ultimately make it possible to set up a transfer of technical skills to install messenger RNA vaccine production capacities in several African countries. The list, unveiled on February 18, includes, in addition to South Africa, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia.