Africa Tries to End Vaccine Inequity by Replicating its Own

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) -

In a pair of Cape Town warehouses converted into a maze of airlocked sterile rooms, young scientists are assembling and calibrating the equipment needed to reverse engineer a coronavirus vaccine that has yet to reach South Africa and most of the world’s poorest people.

The energy in the gleaming labs matches the urgency of their mission to narrow vaccine disparities. By working to replicate Moderna’s COVID-19 shot, the scientists are effectively making an end run around an industry that has vastly prioritized rich countries over poor in both sales and manufacturing.

And they are doing it with unusual backing from the World Health Organization, which is coordinating a vaccine research, training and production hub in South Africa along with a related supply chain for critical raw materials. It’s a last-resort effort to make doses for people going without, and the intellectual property implications are still murky.

“We are doing this for Africa at this moment, and that drives us,” said Emile Hendricks, a 22-year-old biotechnologist for Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, the company trying to reproduce the Moderna shot. “We can no longer rely on these big superpowers to come in and save us.”

Some experts see reverse engineering — recreating vaccines from fragments of publicly available information — as one of the few remaining ways to redress the power imbalances of the pandemic. Only 0.7% of vaccines have gone to low-income countries so far, while nearly half have gone to wealthy countries, according to an analysis by the People’s Vaccine Alliance.

That WHO, which relies upon the goodwill of wealthy countries and the pharmaceutical industry for its continued existence, is leading the attempt to reproduce a proprietary vaccine demonstrates the depths of the supply disparities.

The U.N.-backed effort to even out global vaccine distribution, known as COVAX, has failed to alleviate dire shortages in poor countries. Donated doses are coming in at a fraction of what is needed to fill the gap.

Meanwhile, pressure for drug companies to share, including Biden administration demands on Moderna, has led nowhere.

Dr. Tom Frieden, the former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has described the world as “being held hostage” by Moderna and Pfizer, whose vaccines are considered the most effective against COVID-19. The novel mRNA process uses the genetic code for the spike protein of the coronavirus and is thought to trigger a better immune response than traditional vaccines.

Arguing that American taxpayers largely funded Moderna’s vaccine development, the Biden administration has insisted the company must expand production to help supply developing nations. The global shortfall through 2022 is estimated at 500 million and 4 billion doses, depending on how many other vaccines come on the market.

“The United States government has played a very substantial role in making Moderna the company it is,” said David Kessler, the head of Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. program to accelerate COVID-19 vaccine development.

Kessler would not say how far the administration would go in pressing the company. “They understand what we expect to happen,” he said.

Moderna has pledged to build a vaccine factory in Africa at some point in the future. But after pleading with drugmakers to share their recipes, raw materials and technological know-how, some poorer countries are done waiting.

Afrigen Managing Director Petro Terblanche said the Cape Town company is aiming to have a version of the Moderna vaccine ready for testing in people within a year and scaled up for commercial production not long after.

“We have a lot of competition coming from Big Pharma. They don’t want to see us succeed,” Terblanche said. “They are already starting to say that we don’t have the capability to do this. We are going to show them.”

If the team in South Africa succeeds in making a version of Moderna’s vaccine, the information will be publicly released for use by others, Terblanche said. Such sharing is closer to an approach U.S. President Joe Biden championed in the spring and the pharmaceutical industry strongly opposes.