South African scientists overcome Big Pharma and WTO barriers to develop COVID19 vaccine

February 8, 2022: Scientists at a World Health Organisation (WHO) mRNA vaccine hub in South Africa are developing a COVID19 jab based on the Moderna mRNA vaccine, but it will not be mass produced until next year.

Despite facing trade barriers in the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) rules on intellectual property monopolies, and despite Moderna’s refusal to share knowledge and know-how, the team of researchers have developed the first stage of production from publicly available information, but completing the process will take most of this year.

Speaking to Politico, Petro Terblanche, Afrigen Biologics CEO, said: “We did not get the tech transfer from Moderna. We did it ourselves.”

After declining the WHO’S requests for knowledge and know-how to produce the vaccine, Moderna later pledged that it would not enforce its patents on the vaccine while the pandemic is still happening, allowing researchers to proceed without fear of legal and commercial repercussions.

The WHO’s Martin Friede told Nature journal that “Moderna and Pfizer–BioNTech’s vaccines are mainly still going to just the richest countries. Our objective is to empower other countries to make their own.”  He told Politico that Moderna’s pledge meant that “the hub can produce a Moderna vaccine based on the Moderna technology without worrying about intellectual property issues anywhere on earth… There's no infringement taking place here whatsoever.”

Because of WTO rules on intellectual property, low-income countries face obstacles in accessing and producing COVID19 vaccines. Across Africa, only 10% of people have been fully vaccinated, and globally just 10% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose.

Advocates at Global Trade Watch welcomed the news, cautioning that “Moderna can take that promise [to not enforce their patent] back any second. Firms like Afrigen Biologics need the cover the TRIPS waiver provides.” A waiver on patent monopolies over vaccines would allow for fast, widespread, and scaled production of vaccines like the South African mRNA jab.

  • To read the Nature article, click here.
  • To read the Politico article, click here.