Set on redressing vaccine inequality between rich and poor nations, a South African consortium is taking on pharmaceutical giants in its quest to produce Africa’s first homegrown mRNA Covid-19 vaccine and share it with the global south.
It was sheer determination that kept South African biotech company Afrigen Biologics Vaccines, a small fish in the world of big pharma, fighting to produce homegrown African vaccines against Covid-19.
Managing Director Petro Terblanche recalls the day they received word that Moderna, the pharmaceutical giant responsible for one of the world’s first Covid-19 mRNA vaccines, would not be manufacturing shots in Cape Town.
“They underestimated the absolute ‘can-do’ attitude of people in this country,” she says.
Within two months, Afrigen had reverse-engineered the current mRNA vaccines to create their own.
“Even Moderna underestimated the science space in this country,” Terblanche says.
Researchers at the Antiviral Gene Therapy Research Unit based at the University of Witwatersrand had already been working on mRNA technology. Together with Afrigen, they were able to crack the code that could put South Africa on the map for producing the first mRNA vaccine for Covid-19 to be designed and manufactured in Africa.
“I think we’ve surprised many people … we were afraid that people would be saying, ‘those guys, they’re just bullshitting.’ So, we really had to be fundamentally solid and secure. But once we had the result, we proudly announced it,” says Terblanche.