Moderna’s vaccine ‘recipe’ is for the most part publicly available; the trick is to know what to do with it
Most of the world has vaccinated at least half of its population less than a year after starting to inject COVID-19 vaccines, but Africa continues to lag behind. Only 5% of Africa’s population is fully vaccinated, while developed countries store vaccines and the COVAX system struggles.
Some enterprising South African scientists want to turn the tables, with a daring experiment that could benefit not just the 54 African nations and their 1 billion people, but the entire world: ‘Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines,’ a Cape Town-based start-up has developed a plan to reverse engineer the injection of Moderna’s mRNA vaccine and manufacture it for priority distribution in the continent.
How they are going to do?
The ‘recipe’ for Moderna’s vaccine is mostly public; the trick is figuring out what to do with it. It’s the equivalent of having all the materials and stationery to bake a cake but not enough directions for each step.
Attorneys are currently attempting to ascertain which components of the Moderna vaccine process belong solely to the firm, despite the fact that the vaccine was produced with US taxpayer funds. But, for the time being, that may be irrelevant: The firm has stated that it will not sue, leaving Afrigen free to proceed.
Cloning the mRNA vaccine would be a huge win for the country. In terms of success and reputation, it would be comparable to landing on the moon for a country that all too frequently gets headlines for the wrong reasons. Furthermore, the World Health Organization is supporting and funding the effort, so if the code is cracked, the formula will be made available to everybody as a public good across the African continent and in developing countries.
A highly efficient and inexpensive vaccine that can be made anywhere could be a game changer in preventing the spread of more contagious COVID variants in areas where the population has not yet been vaccinated. When it comes to using mRNA to develop vaccines against other endemic African illnesses like Ebola, which is less contagious but considerably more dangerous than COVID, the sky is the limit.
But don’t get excited yet
Afrigen says it will take up to a year to reverse engineer Moderna’s vaccine. Also, getting the formula correct is just one piece of the puzzle. It would also have to figure out how to mass-produce, store and distribute the vaccine on a continent with often poor infrastructure, not to mention sourcing raw materials at a time when global supply chains are already on edge.
There is also a political angle. In the US, the Biden government wants Moderna to sell more vaccines to COVAX at cost. However, it faces growing criticism for treating the company with silk gloves after it ignored the president’s call to increase production for low-income countries, even though Uncle Sam is actually the father of Moderna’s research.
Meanwhile, public health activists are urging the National Institutes of Health to force Moderna to give up her secret formula.
They also criticize the US government for openly advocating for patent waivers and global vaccine equity but doing nothing to push pharmaceutical firms to share their technology or prioritize supply to nations with poor vaccination rates.
Technically, the Biden administration has some influence because the White House funded Moderna’s vaccine research through the National Institutes of Health and Operation ‘Warp Speed’.
But twisting Moderna’s arm would be a hard sell for the US government, always reluctant to mess with Big Pharma and with little to gain (politically at home) from vaccinating other countries.
Moderna, for her part, says that at this time it is better for the company to expand production on its own than to share its technology, since increasing production in Africa would take too long. More broadly, it is also playing a longer-term game with the goal of dominating the post-COVID mRNA manufacturing landscape alongside Pfizer.
No one knows if reverse engineering COVID mRNA vaccines will work, but no one has tried so far either. What matters is that, despite the uncertainty that comes with science, the business of vaccine development, and the politics that surround it all, there is a huge opportunity.
Image Credit: Getty
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