South Africa on the front line in the battle for access to vaccines

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Faced with the Covid-19 pandemic, a new front line has just opened, discreetly, in Africa. The theater of operations: a brand new laboratory at the bend of a clean industrial zone in the north of Cape Town, in South Africa. Behind the brick walls, the vaccine unit of the Afrigen company is still empty. It’s the calm before the storm. In a few weeks, all the equipment necessary for the development of the first locally designed SARS-CoV-2 messenger RNA vaccine will be installed here.

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The small biotech Afrigen is not alone in this adventure. On June 21, it was designated to host the first messenger RNA vaccine technology transfer platform for developing countries, in partnership with the South African laboratory Biovac.

The project, launched and supervised by the World Health Organization (WHO), aims to increase the capacities of these countries to enable them to produce their own vaccines based on this technology by taking advantage of inputs, not only from pharmaceutical groups. mastering it, but also many public research laboratories working on messenger RNA around the world.

“Phenomenal advance”

If the ad has gone relatively unnoticed, it constitutes “A phenomenal advance” in the battle for access to vaccines, believes South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. Backed by messenger RNA experts, Afrigen hopes to finalize its doses against SARS-CoV-2 within a year.

Founded in 2014, out of a partnership between a South African public funding body and the Infectious Disease Research Institute, based in Seattle (northwestern United States), the company has until now specialized in the manufacture of adjuvants. It has thus become the first in Africa to master the formulation of lipid particles which make it possible in particular to encapsulate messenger RNA. Once the product has been developed, it will hand over to the Biovac laboratory, responsible for large-scale production. It is this tandem – developer on the one hand, producer on the other -, supported by a solid network of local universities, which has won over WHO experts.

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“The South African project was almost perfect”, summarizes Martin Friede, coordinator of the initiative for vaccine research within the institution. On the side of Afrigen, this owes nothing to chance. From the start of the pandemic, its director, Petro Terblanche, took the initiative and asked its shareholders: “They were told: ‘This is the time to raise capital to be ready to take part in the development of a vaccine from A to Z, because there is no such infrastructure in Africa. ””, she remembers.

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