By Wendell Roelf
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - Afrigen Biologics expects a decision in mid-July on partners to produce Africa's first COVID-19 vaccine using the mRNA platform, the South African start-up's managing director said.
The World Health Organization picked Afrigen for a pilot to give poor and middle-income countries the know-how and licenses to make COVID-19 vaccines, in what South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called an historic step.
The "tech transfer hub" will make it possible for African companies to manufacture mRNA vaccines, the advanced technology used in Pfizer and Moderna shots, in 9-12 months, the WHO said on Monday.
"The race is on to get manufacturing capacity in Africa to give us vaccine security," Afrigen's Petro Terblanche told Reuters on Wednesday during the first media visit to its new 130 million rand ($9 million) facility.
"The fastest route for us to that goal would be to go with one of the vaccines that already has market authorization ... However, there is place for other platforms particularly in the area of stability, so it is not impossible that we will look at two different platforms," Terblanche added.
Referring to the instability of mRNA vaccines, which require very cold storage, she said Afrigen could access technology to produce a "thermo-stable" mRNA vaccine that could be kept at temperatures of between 2-8 degrees Celsius.
Afrigen's facility will be capable of producing a maximum 10,000 vials a day of COVID-19 vaccines and it has partnered with local manufacturer Biovac which can produce 30 to 50 million doses a year to distribute across Africa, she added.
The ultra-sterile vaccine unit, with its white-washed walls and warren of interlinked airlocked rooms, is still an empty shell. However, Terblanche said it should be fully operational by February of next year.
Research partners include leading South African universities and local genomics surveillance lab KRISP, which helped detect the Beta variant dominating a third wave of local infections.
The first step for Afrigen will see scientists sent to selected tech transfer partners in the United States or Europe for training. This team will then train their partners at Biovac and others across Africa in a hub and spoke model.
"A safe, affordable vaccine ready to use in humans against COVID-19 will be our first vaccine candidate, to be followed by other vaccines important for Africa," Terblanche said, highlighting infectious diseases such as TB and Ebola.
($1 = 14.2398 rand)
(Reporting by Wendell Roelf; Editing by Alexander Winning and Alexander Smith)