/ 22 June 2021

Vaccine technology transfer hub a win for South Africa

Johnson & Johnson Vaccine Administered At Colorado Fire Department
(Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

South Africa is the first African country that will produce locally manufactured Covid-19 vaccines, paving the way for future vaccine development and pandemic preparedness across the continent. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the establishment of the first Covid-19 messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine technology transfer hub in the country during a joint media briefing with French President Emmanuel Macron and the World Health Organisation (WHO) on the evening of Monday, 21 June.  

“On the African continent, we’ve got capability, it just needs to be ignited. We’ve got expertise, it just needs to be unlocked. And through this we are going to unlock it,” said Ramaphosa. 

He said the hub marked an “important milestone towards the achievement of one of the critical objectives of the AU’s agenda 2063 — the Africa we want”. 

“The ability to manufacture vaccines, medicines and other health-related commodities will help put Africa on a path to self-determination … We will create a narrative that celebrates our successes in reducing the burden of disease in advancing self-reliance and also advancing sustainable development,” said Ramaphosa. 

The hub brings Africa a step closer to developing its own vaccines without depending on developed countries to supply medicines. 

“We will be able to plan for the entire value chain, from training a critical mass of young people, enhancing and maintaining our supply chain, and ensuring the efficient use of medicines,” explained Ramaphosa. 

WHO director general Tedros Ghebreyesus said that relying on only a few companies to supply global public goods — in this case Covid-19 vaccines — was “limiting and dangerous”. 

Ramaphosa added context by emphasising that Africa has 1.2-billion people, of which only 2% have been vaccinated for Covid-19, while developed countries enjoyed a vaccine surplus.

“It is just not equitable and not fair that some people in certain countries, and because they come from rich countries, their lives are worth much more … we need solidarity … we need equitable access [to vaccines],” said Ramaphosa. 

The Covid-19 mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub is a joint initiative coordinated and facilitated by the WHO. The initiative will bring together both the private and public sector, said the WHO’s chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan.

It will see Biovac, Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Communicable Diseases and local universities, among others, working together. 

According to Swaminathan, the first batch of locally manufactured vaccines could be expected in the next nine to 12 months.

Ramaphosa was steadfast in his support for South Africa and India’s resolution of the World Trade Organisation agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (Trips), which aims to promote medicine access for all.

The president acknowledged the historic step of the hub, but noted “it does not detract” from the original proposal put forward by India and South Africa “that we should see a waiver of Trips at the World Health Organisation”.

He directly addressed Ghebreyesus, saying, “I would like the negotiations that are taking place there to proceed with speed” as infections across the African continent were increasing. 

At the start of the briefing, Ghebreyesus announced that new Covid infections in Africa had increased by 40% in the past week. 

More than 2.5-million new coronavirus cases were recorded globally while nearly 64 000 deaths were reported in the last seven days.

Higher Education, Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande has described the hub as a  “significant day for science in Africa, [which] acknowledges the scientific abilities and expertise at our universities.”