Scientists work to decode Moderna’s COVID vaccine to help Africa

Credit: CBSNews
Credit: CBSNews

▶ Watch Video: Moderna under growing pressure to share technology so low-income countries can use it

Cape Town, South Africa — There are huge gaps in the availability of COVID-19 vaccines between different countries. Just 10% of people in Africa have received a single dose, compared to 63% across North America or 62% in Europe.

CBS News correspondent Debora Patta found a start-up in South Africa that hopes to redress that imbalance by reverse engineering one of the major U.S.-made vaccines, making it easier to store, and then producing it independently.

A pair of nondescript warehouses in a dusty part of Cape Town is the unlikely home of a medical revolution. Inside the airlocked, sterile rooms, Patta found a band of rebels in white lab coats who are passionate about using science to change the world.

Global vaccine inequality


Petro Terblanche, the managing director of Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, told Patta that her company’s aim is to overcome the vaccine inequalities laid painfully bare by the COVID-19 pandemic by replicating Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine.

“Although there’s massive efforts to scale up production in the facilities in the high-income countries, those vaccines first vaccinated the people in high-income countries,” told CBS News.

So African countries had to wait. As a result, less than 5% of people on the continent are fully vaccinated.
Afrigen’s technical director Dr. Caryn Fenner said the pandemic was a wake-up call, “because it made us realize if we don’t step up and do it ourselves, no one else is going to do it.”

Vaccine distribution highlights global inequa…


After pleading with big pharma companies to share their vaccine recipes, the scientists in Cape Town decided there was no more time to wait, and they took the development of a vaccine into their own hands. Afrigen is working to replicate Moderna’s mRNA COVID vaccine together with Wits University in Johannesburg.

Despite Moderna’s stated commitment to global vaccine access, they have not given their permission to the Afrigen project.

“We can legally take this vaccine up to clinical trials without infringing any intellectual property,” explained Terblanche. But then they’ll have a problem.

“We would ideally want to have a license agreement with Moderna,” she told Patta.  

The company’s ambition is not just to replicate Moderna’s vaccine, but to improve upon it, creating a freeze-dried version that doesn’t require cold storage.

The World Health Organization is backing the effort, so that Africa can reduce its reliance on outside companies. 
After months of skepticism in the medical and scientific community that any African entity would succeed in creating an mRNA vaccine, like Moderna’s or Pfizer’s, Terblanche said Afrigen looks forward to surprising the “rest of the world: We can, and we will.”  
It’s that kind of determination — by rebels in lab coats — that will be needed to turn the tide on this battlefront in the war on the coronavirus.