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Africa tries to end vaccine inequality by repeating | News, Sports, Work




CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) – In a pair of Cape Town warehouses turned into a labyrinth of sterile air-tight rooms, young scientists are gathering and calibrating equipment needed to change the engineering of a coronavirus vaccine that has not yet reached South Africa and most of the poorest people in the world.

The energy in the brilliant laboratories coincides with the urgency of their mission to narrow vaccine inequalities. Working to replicate the blow of Modern COVID-19, scientists are effectively ending an industry that has given many rich countries priority over the poor in both sales and production.

And they are doing it with unusual support from the World Health Organization, which is coordinating a vaccine research, training and production center in South Africa along with an affiliated supply chain for critical raw materials. It is a recent attempt to make doses for people who pass without, and the implications of intellectual property are still obscure.

“We are doing this for Africa at the moment, and that pushes us,” said Emile Hendricks, a 22-year-old biotechnologist for Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, the company trying to reproduce Modern photography. “We can no longer rely on these great superpowers to come and save us.”

Some experts see reverse engineering – recreating vaccines from fragments of information available to the public – as one of the few remaining ways to correct pandemic power imbalances. Only 0.7 percent of vaccines have gone to low-income countries so far, while nearly half have gone to rich countries, according to an analysis by the People’s Vaccine Alliance.

The WHO, which relies on the goodwill of rich countries and the pharmaceutical industry for its continued existence, is leading the effort to reproduce a proprietary vaccine that shows the depths of supply inequalities.

The UN-backed effort to equalize the global distribution of vaccines, known as COVAX, has failed to alleviate the terrible 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, including the Biden administration’s demands for Moderna, has gone nowhere.

To date, the WHO has never directly participated in the replication of a new vaccine for current global use over objections from the original developers. The Cape Town Center aims to expand access to the new RNA messenger technology that Moderna, as well as Pfizer and German partner BioNTech, used in their vaccines.

“This is the first time we are doing it at this level, because of the urgency and also because of the innovation of this technology,” said Martin Friede, a WHO vaccine research coordinator who is helping run the center.

Dr. Tom Frieden, former head of the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has described the world as “Being held hostage” by Moderna and Pfizer, whose vaccines are considered most effective against COVID-19. The new mRNA process uses the genetic code for coronavirus protein and is thought to elicit a better immune response than traditional vaccines.

Arguing that U.S. taxpayers primarily funded the development of Modern vaccines, the Biden administration has insisted that the company should expand production to help supply developing nations. The global shortage by 2022 is estimated at 500 million and 4 billion doses, depending on how many other vaccines hit the market.

“The United States Government has played a very essential role in making Moderna the company that it is,” said David Kessler, head of Operation Warp Speed, the US program to accelerate the development of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Kessler did not say how far the administration would go under company pressure. “They understand what we expect to happen,” he said.

Moderna has pledged to build a vaccine factory in Africa at some point in the future. But after begging drugmakers to share their prescriptions, raw materials and technological knowledge, some poorer countries have ended up waiting.

Afrigen Managing Director Petro Terblanche said the Cape Town company is aiming to have a version of the Moderna vaccine ready for human testing within a year and expand it for commercial production not long after.

“We have a lot of competition coming from Big Pharma. “They do not want to see us succeed.” Tha Terblanche. “They have already started saying that we do not have the ability to do that. We will show them. “

If the team in South Africa manages to make a version of the Modern vaccine, the information will be made public for use by others, Terblanche said. Such a split is closer to an approach US President Joe Biden protected in the spring and the pharmaceutical industry strongly opposes.

Commercial production is the point at which intellectual property can become an issue. Moderna has said it would not take legal action against a company for violating its vaccine rights, nor has it offered to help companies that have volunteered to carry out its mRNA.

Chairman Noubar Afeyan said Moderna determined it would be better to expand production itself than share the technology and plans to deliver billions of additional doses next year.

“Within the next six to nine months, the most reliable way to make high quality vaccines and in an efficient way will be if we make them,” Tha Afeyan.

Zoltan Keys, an expert on RNA vaccines sent to the British University of Sheffield, said the reproduction of the Modern vaccine is “Realizable” but the task would be much easier if the company shared its expertise. Kis estimated that the process involves less than a dozen major steps. But some procedures are complicated, such as sealing the messenger’s fragile RNA on lipid nanoparticles, he said.

“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.”

A UN-backed public health organization still hopes to convince Modern that its approach to providing vaccines to poorer countries does not mark it. Formed in 2010, the Drug Patent Pool initially focused on convincing pharmaceutical companies to grant patents for AIDS drugs.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, who is among members of Congress backing a bill calling on the United States to invest more in the production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in low- and middle-income countries, said that reverse engineering will not happen fast enough to prevent the virus from mutating and spreading further.

“We have to show some urgency. “We have to show a sense of urgency, and I do not see that urgency.” he said. “Either we end this pandemic or we confuse our way.”

Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online.

Copyright 2021 Associated Press.

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