A scientist’s opinion: interview with Petro Terblanche on the first African vaccine hub

Petro Terblanche profilePetro Terblanche is Health Science Professor at North-West University and is Managing Director at Afrigen Biologics in South Africa. Next to developing an open source vaccine, Afrigen hosts a global vaccine hub to build capacity and capabilities in low- and middle-income countries to design, develop and produce messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines.

Professor Terblanche, as managing director of Afrigen, a South African biotechnology company, you are working with the World Health Organization (WHO) to produce a Covid-19 mRNA vaccine as part of a mRNA technology transfer hub. What does that mean?

Petro Terblanche: The background for this establishment is that under the COVAX initiative, in early 2021, there was a strong realisation that the vaccine supply to lower- and middle-income countries was not sufficient. COVAX started a few key initiatives to correct that. One of the work’s focuses must specifically be on how do we build the capacity and capabilities in low- and middle-income countries to enable them to produce their own vaccines. A strategic decision was made at the time to create an mRNA platform.

Has your company successfully formulated the mRNA Covid-19 vaccine using publicly available information on the Moderna vaccine?

Petro Terblanche: Yes indeed, we made a choice to use the sequence of the Moderna vaccine that was made available in the public domain by Stanford scientists (who reverse-engineered the droplets left in used vials, Ed.). Based on this sequence, we designed a construct and produced the plasma DNA.

Were there any legal implications of this?

Petro Terblanche: There were no infringements. Under the Bolar exemption, WHO research and development is exempted from intellectual property rights. Only at the point in which we go for market authorisation and commercial production will we require freedom to operate. That’s how we started.

The second component is that Moderna and BioNTech have declared that there are no public waivers available and have declared in the media that they will give freedom to operate to the 92 countries classified as low income to produce Covid-19 vaccines. They will not stand in the way of the mRNA hub to produce a Covid-19 vaccine to transfer to these countries to enhance and increase the capacity for Covid-19 vaccine production.

Financial Times asked if open source vaccines could narrow the inequality gap exposed by Covid-19. What is your idea?

Petro Terblanche: We know that WHO guidelines ask for 70% of the population to be fully vaccinated.
In Africa, we are now at 21%, but we are aiming to reach the more than 50% mark soon.

Essentially, we have a continent with 1.3 billion people who are not fully vaccinated and are therefore potentially at risk from the development of new variants. If that happens, the demand for effective Covid-19 vaccines will escalate quite significantly.

We have to address the issue of vaccine hesitancy around the African continent, because the goal is still to have 1 billion people vaccinated, which would still require 3 billion doses of vaccines. That our vaccine will be on time to meet this need, I doubt it, to be honest with you.

But we have to take a step back and understand the original purpose of this program: the hub was initiated as a Covid-19 vaccine requirement, but the ultimate goal is to enable and empower middle- and low-income countries to produce their own mRNA vaccines. If Covid-19 was the only epidemic here, that would be good, but we are already looking at Lassa fever, Dengue, Chikungunya, Malaria, etc.

All of these vaccines are a very low priority in high-income countries because for them, they do not justify all the investments required.

This empowerment project will ensure that we will have a balanced ecosystem, that we do not create unnecessary capacity, and that we empower the continent to produce 60% of its vaccines by itself, establishing a sector of an industry that does not exist in these countries.

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