Egypt and Tunisia get Covid-19 vaccine-making know-how

Six African nations are part of UN-backed programme to receive advanced mRNA manufacturing technology

A vaccine factory in Chuncheon, South Korea. The WHO set up the programme in response to rich nations making large-scale purchases of vaccines and pushing poorer countries to the back of the queue for shots. Reuters
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Egypt, Tunisia and four others states were announced on Friday as participants in a World Health Organisation programme to transfer the technology to produce advanced coronavirus vaccines in Africa.

Those two nations, along with Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa, will receive gear and training to set up their own mRNA vaccine production plants and tackle the continent’s low vaccination rates.

The WHO set up the programme in response to rich nations making large-scale purchases of vaccines and pushing poorer countries to the back of the queue for shots.

Announcing the effort in Brussels, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that 80 per cent of Africans have yet to receive a single dose of vaccine because of bulk buying in the rich world.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that reliance on a few companies to supply global public goods is limiting and dangerous,” said Dr Tedros.

“The best way to address health emergencies and reach universal health coverage is to significantly increase the capacity of all regions to manufacture the health products they need.”

The programme was launched last year in Cape Town and aims to help poorer nations manufacture vaccines using the same advanced mRNA technology used by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech for their Covid-19 shots.

Recipients will receive training to produce mRNA vaccines at scale and in line with international standards. Though focused on Covid-19, the same gear can be used to make vaccines and drugs to fight other diseases.

The one-year-old South African hub is already producing mRNA vaccines and is scaling up production. Still, currently only 1 per cent of the Covid-19 vaccines used in Africa are made on the continent of about 1.3 billion people.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa praised the programme, which will would make Africa more self-sufficient.

“It means mutual respect, mutual recognition of what we can all bring to the party, investment in our economies, infrastructure investment and, in many ways, giving back to the continent,” Mr Ramaphosa said.

The technology transfers do not, however, tackle the troublesome issue of vaccine patents.

Developing nations in Africa and elsewhere have pushed for temporary intellectual property waivers to permit production of generic Covid-19 vaccines, but have faced resistance from governments in Europe, where many manufacturers are based.

Kate Stegeman, an Africa co-ordinator for the global aid group Doctors Without Borders, said the transfers were a “welcome milestone” in expanding access to vaccines, but urged firms like Moderna to share more of their know-how to speed up the process.

“The fastest way to start vaccine production in African countries and other regions with limited vaccine production is still through full and transparent transfer of vaccine know-how of already approved mRNA technologies to able companies with existing capacity,” she said.

Updated: February 18, 2022, 4:46 PM