Cape Town – In a pair of Cape Town warehouses transformed into an air-locked sterile room labyrinth, young scientists need to reverse engineer a coronavirus vaccine that has not yet reached most of South Africa and the world’s poorest people. The equipment is assembled and adjusted.
The gleaming laboratory energy is in line with the urgency of their mission to bridge the vaccine gap. By working on replicating Moderna’s COVID-19 shots, scientists have effectively eliminated an industry that has prioritized rich countries over poor countries in both sales and manufacturing.
And they are doing so with the unusual support of the World Health Organization, which coordinates South Africa’s vaccine research, training and production centers with relevant supply chains for key raw materials. Taking it for those without is a last resort and the impact on intellectual property is still unclear.
“We are doing this for Africa at the moment, and it is driving us,” said Emil Hendrix, a 22-year-old biotechnologist at Africa Biologics & Vaccines, trying to recreate the modern jab. I am “We can no longer rely on these great superpowers to come and save us.”
Some experts consider reverse engineering (re-creating a vaccine from a piece of publicly available information) as one of the few remaining ways to correct the pandemic power imbalance. So far, only 0.7% of vaccines have gone to low-income countries and almost half have gone to rich countries, according to an analysis by the People’s Vaccine Alliance.
The fact that the WHO, which relies on the goodwill of wealthy countries and the pharmaceutical industry, is leading the effort to reproduce its own vaccines, shows the depth of supply inequality.
UN-backed efforts to equalize vaccine distribution around the world, known as COVAX, have failed to address severe shortages in poor countries. The donated dose only comes in at a fraction of the amount needed to fill the gap. Drug companies, on the other hand, have no pressure to share, including the Biden administration’s request for Modana.
To date, WHO has not directly participated in replicating new vaccines for current worldwide use, beyond opposition from the original developers. The Cape Town hub aims to increase access to new messenger RNA technology used in vaccines by Moderna, Pfizer and German partner BioNTech.
“This is the first time we have reached this level because of the urgency and innovation of this technology,” said Martin Freed, WHO Vaccine Research Coordinator who helped direct the hub.
Dr Tom Frieden, former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the world was “held hostage” by Modana and Pfizer, whose vaccines are believed to be the most effective against COVID-19. I am The new mRNA process uses the genetic code of the coronavirus peplomer and is believed to elicit a better immune response than conventional vaccines.
Claiming that US taxpayers provided most of the funding for Moderna’s vaccine development, the Biden administration argued that the company had to increase production to help supply supplies to developing countries. Based on the number of other vaccines in the market, the global shortfall is projected to be between 500 million and 4 billion doses by 2022.
“The US government has played a very important role in making Moderna a company,” said David Kessler, head of Operation Warp Speed, a US program that accelerates COVID-19 vaccine development. Growth.
Kessler did not say how far the administration would go by putting pressure on the company. “They understand what we expect to happen,” he said.
Moderna has promised to build a vaccine plant in Africa at some point in the future. But after begging drug companies to share recipes, ingredients and technical information, some poor countries are waiting.
Afrigen’s managing director Petro Terblanche said the Cape Town company’s goal is to allow people to test versions of the modern vaccine within a year and take it to commercial production quickly.
“We have a lot of competition from big pharma. They don’t want to see us succeed,” Terblanche said. I’ll show you them. “
If the South African team is successful in creating a version of Moderna’s vaccine, that information will be made publicly available to others, Terblanche said. Such a partnership is close to the approach defended by US President Joe Biden in the spring and strongly opposed by the pharmaceutical industry.
Commercial production is a point where intellectual property can be a problem. Moderna said it would not sue the companies for infringement of vaccine rights, but did not offer to support companies that voluntarily shoot mRNA.
President Nubar Afyan said Moderna decided it would be better to expand production than to share technology, and plans to take billions of additional doses next year.
“The most reliable way to efficiently produce high quality vaccines within the next 6-9 months is to produce the vaccines,” Afyan said.
Zoltan Kiss, a messenger RNA vaccine specialist at the University of Sheffield, said modern vaccine replication is “feasible”, but it would be much easier if companies shared their expertise. Kiss estimated that the process involved no less than 12 major steps. However, he added that some procedures, such as sealing the delicate messenger RNA on lipid nanoparticles, require caution.
“It’s like a very complicated cooking method,” he said. “Having a recipe is very, very helpful, and it also helps if someone can show you how to do it.”
UN-backed public health organizations still want to convince Modana that the approach to providing vaccines to poor countries is not the right one. Established in 2010, the Medicines Patent Pool initially focused on persuading pharmaceutical companies to share AIDS drug patents.
“It’s not about outsiders helping Africa,” said Charles Gore, managing director of South Africa’s Vaccine Hub. “Africa wants to be empowered, and that’s it.”
Ultimately, it will depend on Gore trying to solve the intellectual property problem. Modana’s work to reproduce a COVID-19 vaccine is protected as a study, which could lead to controversy over the process of commercializing a copy, he said.
“It’s about persuading Moderna to work with us, rather than using other methods,” Gore said.
He said the medicine patent pool had tried repeatedly, but could not convince Pfizer and BioNTech, the first companies to offer effective vaccines, to discuss sharing prescriptions.
Raja Krishnamati, one of the lawmakers in support of the bill calling on the United States to invest more in the production and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine in low- and middle-income countries, said reverse engineering would not happen. Fast enough to stop the virus from mutating and spreading further.
“We need to show some movement. We have to show a sense of urgency, and I haven’t seen that urgency,” he said. “We either end this pandemic or obstruct our path.”
Campaign participants claim that the amount of vaccines available to poor countries through donations, COVAX and procurement is low, indicating that the Western-dominated pharmaceutical industry is collapsing.
“The enemies of these companies are losing out on potential profits in the future,” said Zoya Mukherjee, chief medical officer of global health non-profit Partners in Health. “The enemy is not a virus, the enemy is not a victim.”
The promise of returning to Cape Town and using mRNA technology for other diseases inspires young scientists.
“The enthusiasm is learning how to use mRNA technology to develop a COVID-19 vaccine,” said Afrigen’s technical director Caryn Fenner. But more importantly, “we are using the mRNA platform beyond COVID, not just COVID.”
Chen reported from London. Hinanth reported from Paris.
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