Amid separate BioNTech and Moderna moves, WHO debuts mRNA tech hub in Africa

A new day has dawned in Africa’s quest to crank out cutting-edge vaccines as the World Health Organization (WHO) officially opened an mRNA vaccine hub in Cape Town, South Africa.

WHO has tapped South African biotech Afrigen Biologics for the pilot project, with Afrigen leveraging the publicly available sequence of Moderna’s COVID shot Spikevax to make it own version of the prophylactic, AfriVac 2121, at lab scale.

The company is now working to scale up production for phase 1/2 clinical trials. Alongside the scale-up process, Afrigen will continue to work on training and technology transfer to its manufacturing partners.

The facility was first set up during the COVID-19 pandemic to help lower-income countries access the mRNA COVID shots, according to a release from WHO. AfriVac 2121 represents the first mRNA vaccine designed, developed and manufactured at lab scale in Africa. 

Funding for the program has come from South Africa, the EU and a handful of European countries plus Canada and “other local and international partners,” according to an emailed statement from Public Citizen. Technical support has been offered up by U.S. agencies such as the NIH Vaccine Research Center, though Public Citizen notes the U.S. has yet to provide direct funding.

Amid the WHO's technology hub effort, Moderna and Pfizer’s German mRNA partner BioNTech have made their own mRNA manufacturing moves on the continent.

BioNTech’s plan revolves around modular factories housed inside of shipping containers, dubbed BioNTainers, which consist of one drug substance and one drug formulation module. BioNTech figures the mobile factories will have enduring value beyond COVID-19, too.

“COVID-19 might not be relevant in five, six, seven years, but the manufacturing technology will be relevant,” BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin said on a conference call early last year. That’s because “we know that mRNA is a new drug class, which is suitable for different types of vaccines,” the CEO said. 

In December, BioNTech said it was planning to ship its inaugural mini facility to Kigali, Rwanda, in 2023’s first quarter.

Separately, Moderna in October 2021 said it would plug $500 million into an mRNA manufacturing facility in Africa capable of cranking out hundreds of millions of vaccine doses per year. Last May, Moderna planted its production flag in Kenya, signing a memorandum of understanding with country officials to erect its $500 million plant there.

At the time, Moderna said it was working toward getting the plant built and operational to fill doses of its COVID-19 vaccines in Africa by 2023 depending on demand for the shots.