Moderna agrees to help WHO’s mRNA Hub develop Covid-19 vaccine, but Pfizer declines

Afrigen aims to develop a drug that may be manufactured at 15 sites around the world

The Afrigen Biologics & Vaccines lab is part of the WHO's mRNA technology transfer hub in South Africa. Bloomberg
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Moderna has allowed its Covid-19 vaccine to be used in a World Health Organisation effort to develop mRNA shots that would increase production and access for poor countries.

Afrigen Biologics & Vaccines, a South African biotechnology company working with the WHO, has used the Moderna vaccine in comparison studies in mice to test the effectiveness of its own drugs, said Petro Terblanche, Afrigen’s managing director.

Demand for Covid vaccines has slowed across the world as more recent variants of the virus have caused milder illness, yet many people in low and middle-income countries like South Africa remain unvaccinated and vulnerable to the potentially lethal disease.

With Moderna’s help, Afrigen aims to develop a vaccine that may be manufactured at 15 production sites around the world under the aegis of the WHO’s mRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub in Cape Town.

Moderna did not supply the vaccine directly. It allowed the vaccine to be provided by the French government after a request from the UN-backed Medicines Patent Pool, according to Marie-Paule Kieny, the pool’s chairwoman. Pfizer refused a similar request because it didn’t regard the need as urgent, she said.

Moderna and the partnership of Pfizer and BioNTech have come under increased pressure to allow factories in poorer countries to produce their vaccines after the world’s richest nations raced to inoculate their populations while barely any vaccines were available in large parts of Africa.

“Since the start of the pandemic Pfizer has received many requests to collaborate on studies and other initiatives from many different worthy sources,” Pfizer said. “Unfortunately, it is impossible to support them all and our focus remains on delivering as per our existing supply agreements with governments.”

France has supported the mRNA hub, giving it €20 million ($20m) in assistance so far, said Ms Kieny. The WHO’s mRNA hub has a more ambitious plan, with the production of a vaccine designed by Afrigen to take place at factories in countries including South Africa, Argentina, Ukraine and Bangladesh.

The early-stage trials of Afrigen’s vaccine using mice produced “a strong immune response,” the company said. Moderna placed some conditions on the use of its vaccine in the studies, Mr Terblanche said.

Still, Afrigen may need further assistance from Moderna or Pfizer, including allowing the use of vaccine for comparative human trials that are expected to start by May. That request is expected in coming weeks, Ms Kieny said.

Updated: September 19, 2022, 6:53 AM