Covid-19 roundup: As Omicron spreads, African biotech reportedly close to reproducing Moderna's vaccine, while WHO creates pandemic prevention body
The emergence of the Omicron variant over the holiday has reignited the focus on vaccine equity, and in its efforts to bring more shots to Africa, one South African biotech is reportedly close to reproducing Moderna’s mRNA shot.
Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines is speeding toward its pivotal trials, the Washington Post reported Sunday, though it’s doing so without Moderna’s recipe. The biotech reportedly has finished sequencing the Moderna vaccine and plans to soon compare its own recreation to Moderna’s jab.
A key differentiator, however, is Afrigen is attempting to make a vaccine that will not require freezing in storage — hopefully lowering costs and enabling better access for African countries.
Though Moderna has said it will not seek damages during the course of the pandemic, the biotech has thus far refused to share its intellectual property. Moderna has also pledged up to $500 million to build an mRNA manufacturing site in Africa to eventually make up to 500 million vaccine doses each year.
As a result, Afrigen’s development process is largely made up of publicly available information and help from outside advisors. If Moderna shares its formula, Afrigen could have the continent’s first mRNA shot within a year, managing director Petro Terblanche told the Post. Without it, the process could take up to three years.
Earlier this year, Afrigen joined an mRNA tech transfer hub established with both the WHO and COVAX to try to boost vaccination rates in Africa. With wealthy nations having bought up most of the early supply, vaccination of the continent’s 1.2 billion people remains at just 6%, per the Post, compared to 60% in the US, 70% in France and 77% in China.
Meanwhile, the WHO is stepping up pressure on rich countries in a new statement out Monday morning. The organization called out vaccine donation efforts to Africa, saying that in order for the continent to reach 70% immunization, “the quality of donations needs to improve.”
“The majority of the donations to-date have been ad hoc, provided with little notice and short shelf lives,” the statement read in part. “This has made it extremely challenging for countries to plan vaccination campaigns and increase absorptive capacity. To achieve higher coverage rates across the continent, and for donations to be a sustainable source of supply that can complement supply from AVAT and COVAX purchase agreements, this trend must change.”
WHO seeks to establish permanent pandemic prevention task force
As the Omicron variant continues its spread, the WHO is putting together a new task force to strengthen pandemic preparedness and response.
During the second special session of the World Health Assembly on Sunday, the organization said it is planning on establishing a new negotiating body to better coordinate responses to future pandemics. The first meeting of the panel will take place no later than next March 1, and each of the six WHO regions will get a seat at the table in either a co-chair or vice chair post.
Should everything go well at the first meeting, the WHO said a second meeting will take place on or before Aug. 1, after which a proposal will be submitted to enshrine the body in the WHO’s constitution.
In addition to highlighting continued inequities and spurring WHO action, the Omicron variant is also creating logistical nightmares for travelers and governments, as the WTO postponed a meeting in Geneva over virus concerns, the body said in a statement. The in-person meeting had been scheduled to run Tuesday through Friday in Geneva.
Among the topics expected to have been discussed were waivers for Covid-19 treatments, vaccines and therapeutics, which has proved a thorny issue throughout the pandemic. The Biden administration has supported temporarily waiving patents since May, while the EU said last week it will consider a “targeted” waiver after lengthy opposition.
The waiver was first proposed by South Africa and India in October 2020.
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