In Cape Town, South Africa, two warehouses have been converted into a number of airlocked sterile rooms where young scientists are assembling and calibrating the equipment needed to create a coronavirus vaccine. Over the objections of the original developers, The Cape Town initiative is intended to expand access to the novel messenger RNA technology that Moderna, as well as Pfizer and German partner BioNTech, used in their vaccines. If the team in South Africa succeeds in making a version of Moderna’s vaccine, the information will be publicly released for use by others.
Dr. Tom Frieden, the former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has described the world as “being held hostage” by Moderna and Pfizer, whose vaccines are considered the most effective against COVID-19. The novel mRNA process uses the genetic code for the spike protein of the coronavirus and is thought to trigger a better immune response than traditional vaccines.
It’s a last-resort effort to make vaccine doses available for people going without because of the refusal of Big Pharma and the World Trade Organization to temporary rescind intellectual property laws.
“We are doing this for Africa at this moment, and that drives us,” said Emile Hendricks, a 22-year-old biotechnologist for Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, the company trying to reproduce the Moderna shot. “We can no longer rely on these big superpowers to come in and save us.”
With the approval and assistance of the World Health Organization, he and his colleagues are applying reverse engineering — recreating vaccines from fragments of publicly available information — as one of the few remaining ways to redress the power imbalances of the pandemic.
Only 0.7% of vaccines have gone to low-income countries so far, while nearly half have gone to wealthy countries. The U.N.-backed effort to equitably allot vaccines globally, known as COVAX, has failed to alleviate severe shortages in poor countries. Donated doses are coming in at a fraction of what is needed to fill the gap. Meanwhile, pressure for drug companies to share vaccines has led nowhere.
After pleading with drugmakers to share their formulas, raw materials and technological know-how, some poorer countries are done waiting.
Afrigen Managing Director Petro Terblanche said the Cape Town company is aiming to have a version of the Moderna vaccine ready for testing in people within a year and scaled up for commercial production not long after.“We have a lot of competition coming from Big Pharma. They don’t want to see us succeed.”
Moderna has not offered to help outside companies to make its mRNA shot. The Medicines Patent Pool repeatedly tried but failed to convince Pfizer and BioNTech to even discuss sharing their formulas.
Zoltan Kis, an expert in messenger RNA vaccines at the University of Sheffield, said reproducing Moderna’s vaccine is “doable” but the task would be far easier if the company shared its expertise. Kis estimated the process involves fewer than a dozen major steps. But certain procedures are tricky, such as sealing the fragile messenger RNA in lipid nanoparticles, he said. “It’s like a very complicated cooking recipe,” he said. “Having the recipe would be very, very helpful, and it would also help if someone could show you how to do it.”
“The enemy to these corporations is losing their potential profit down the line,” Joia Mukherjee, chief medical officer of the global health nonprofit Partners in Health, said.