COVID junk: South African scientists copy Moderna’s vaccine

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South Africa’s Afrigen Biologics & Vaccines Ltd. said it has made a Covid-19 vaccine that matches the one by Moderna Inc. after that company rebuffed it in its request for a partnership.

Afrigen, part of the World Health Organization’s mRNA technology transfer hub in Cape Town, obtained the publicly available sequence of the Moderna shot from Stanford University and has now made its own version, Petro Terblanche, the managing director of Afrigen, said.

The WHO set up the mRNA hub in the South African city, its first, in June in a bid to address concerns that poor countries weren’t getting sufficient access to Covid-19 vaccines.

The initial idea was to form a partnership with a major producer of mRNA vaccines, however companies including Pfizer Inc., BioNTech SE and Moderna all declined the WHO’s request to share their technology and expertise.

“That didn’t happen,” Terblanche said. “We put a team together and moved on.”

Representatives for Moderna did not immediately comment.

Afrigen, a laboratory that produces materials that can be used in vaccines, is now doing final tests and will then transfer the technology to larger companies that can make the substance on a bigger scale.

The initial transfer will be to the BioVac Institute, which is also in Cape Town, and then there will be transfers to Sinergium Biotech SA in Argentina and Brazil’s Fundacao Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, she said.

The vaccine still needs to go through clinical trials and it could be two years before a license can be sought and the shot rolled out to the general population, she said.

Afrigen is permitted to make the vaccine especially as it is still in an experimental stage, she said.

“The sequence is in the public domain,” she said. “We have freedom to operate.”

South Africa is a good place to hold the trials because of its medical expertise, ethnically diverse population and a high prevalence of co-morbidities, she said.

While the vaccine may not be available for some time it demonstrates the technical capability of Afrigen.

The company is looking at making another Covid-19 vaccine itself that won’t need to be stored at the ultra-low temperatures required by Moderna’s shot and will ultimately look to tackle diseases prevalent in Africa such as HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, she said.

The development was reported earlier by Reuters.


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