South African scientists crack code to Moderna’s Covid vaccine

Scientists in South Africa have produced their own version of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine, cracking its code in just two months. 

Using publicly available information, a team of scientists from Afrigen Biologics in Cape Town has made a small batch of Moderna’s mRNA shot without the company’s involvement, in a major milestone for a scheme which aims to boost global manufacturing capacity. 

At a briefing on Friday, scientists said it could be as long as three years before Afrigen vaccines are ready to be distributed – but stressed that the speed of the initial production demonstrates that mRNA technology is not “too complicated” for lower income countries.

“There were a lot of groups that said: ‘oh, mRNA technology, this is rocket science, you guys will not be able to do it’,” said Dr Martin Friede, coordinator of the World Health Organization’s Initiative for Vaccine Research.

“But now… [Afrigen has] gone from the raw reagents all the way through to having a vaccine candidate, and that’s taken two months. So the first thing is: this was not as much rocket science as people made it appear.” 

Dr Friede heads the WHO’s mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub, which launched last summer in an attempt to expand manufacturing capacity in lower income countries and help overcome vast imbalances in global access to shots

Based in South Africa, the initiative will work with partner labs across the globe to share new innovations and train scientists. 

‘No intention’ of infringing patents

The scheme focuses on the mRNA platform because, as well as forming the basis of highly effective Covid jabs, “it is adaptable, it’s a new technology, and it has immense potential and other diseases”, according to the WHO’s chief scientist, Dr Soumya Swaminathan. 

But so far Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna – which are behind two approved mRNA shots that have been rolled out to millions – have declined a request to share their technology or take part on the WHO hub. 

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