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South African biotech company to develop first African-owned Covid-19 vaccine

A year after the creation of the mRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub, a South African biotech company has teamed up with a Belgium-based firm to develop an African Covid-19 vaccine.

South Africa’s Afrigen Biologics and Belgium’s Univercells will develop the first African-owned Covid-19 shot as part of a broader effort to reduce the continent’s reliance on other regions for vaccines.

During the signing of the agreement on Tuesday, Afrigen, based in Cape Town, said it is working to facilitate the production of mRNA vaccines at more than 15 manufacturing sites in low- and middle-income nations worldwide.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that there is a pressing need to build African capabilities in vaccine development and manufacturing. Without the capacity to make their own vaccines, too many countries haven’t been able to access them,” said Petro Terblanche, Afrigen’s managing director.

Africa, which imports about 99 percent of the shots it needs, was left far behind wealthier nations in securing shots during the pandemic, with manufacturing concentrated in just a handful of countries.

The partners said they will seek to develop vaccines that are cheaper to produce and easier to store and distribute in rural and remote locations where few people have been vaccinated.

Several of the existing mRNA vaccines must be contained in super-cold storage to retain their efficacy, which poses problems for some countries trying to get the vaccines to rural areas, where electricity supply is not guaranteed.

The group is developing an mRNA vaccine that can be stored in regular refrigerators, so it is easier to store and distribute to rural populations without needing special equipment.

It will also be working with eTheRNA, a technology company with the expertise to deal with vaccines and cold storage challenges.


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