Europe is throwing its weight behind Africa’s mRNA COVID vaccine push—except on one key point

February 18, 2022, 1:01 PM UTC

Efforts to independently develop mRNA-based vaccines—of the sort produced by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech—have paid off with a recent prototype in South Africa, and the resulting technology is now going to be shared across the African continent so other countries can also prepare to make their own vaccines using the powerful new technology.

The World Health Organization announced Friday that its South Africa–based “mRNA vaccine hub” will send the technology to Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia, so they can set up manufacturing “spokes.” Scientists in those countries will start receiving training next month, and the implications are massive: For now, mRNA vaccines are only available for COVID-19, but there is great hope that the technology will also lead to new vaccines for tuberculosis and malaria—and perhaps HIV and cancer, too.

“This is a strategic investment, not just for COVID, but for all the major health problems that we face,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Friday, at a Brussels event attended by many African and European leaders.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission—which has pledged €1 billion ($1.14 billion) to the expansion of African vaccine manufacturing and access—said she was “very glad to see this ambitious project move forward.”

“We have been talking a lot about producing mRNA vaccines in Africa. But this goes even beyond. This is mRNA technology designed in Africa, led by Africa, and owned by Africa, with the support of Team Europe,” said von der Leyen.

Soft power

However, in this situation, context is everything. The announcement of the new African mRNA transfers took place against the backdrop of a two-day summit between the European Union and African Union, at which the African side—perceived as increasingly coming under Chinese and Russian influence—came bearing a list of grievances.

Some of those are economic—Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari complained about the barriers African companies face in Europe’s markets, while trade agreements disadvantage African firms—but the issue of vaccines is one of the sorest points. After all, the continent has a shockingly low COVID vaccination rate, with less than 1% of its people having gone through the booster stage. In von der Leyen’s native Germany, for example, over 56% of the population is now boosted.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has accused rich countries of “vaccine apartheid” for their hoarding of anti-COVID jabs. Rich countries have also donated millions of doses close to their expiry date, leading some recipient countries to throw them away. And then there’s the big argument around intellectual property.

The EU may be putting a lot of money into African vaccines, but it is also blocking a proposal—originally made by South Africa and India—for a temporary waiver of the TRIPS Agreement, the global intellectual-property rule book, regarding COVID vaccines. Everyone from the U.S. to China backs the TRIPS waiver, which would force vaccine makers to share their know-how with manufacturers that could then produce generic versions, but not Europe. And, while he welcomed the latest development, Ramaphosa used his turn at Friday’s mRNA hub press conference to drive home the implications.

“In South Africa, full operationalization of the mRNA hub has been hampered by intellectual property barriers,” Ramaphosa said. “This could occur in other countries with the potential to host spokes.”

‘The lives of millions’

Indeed, the company that developed the hub’s vaccine, Afrigen, has said its work would be hugely sped up if Moderna—whose COVID vaccine provides the essential blueprint for the Afrigen jab—would play ball and hand over certain proprietary technology. For now, South African IP laws and a Moderna promise not to enforce its patents during the pandemic have allowed Afrigen and its partners to do their work, but there is considerable uncertainty about the future.

“Governments that are really serious about ensuring that the world has access to vaccines should ensure that we approve the TRIPS waiver as we have put forward, rather than hide behind IP [and] the profitability of the originators,” said Ramaphosa.

“We are facing a global pandemic that will stay with us for a long time, and all that has been asked for is that the TRIPS waiver should be done within a set period of time, so as to enable the countries that do not have easy access to vaccines, to have access to vaccines. We are talking about the lives of millions, hundreds of millions of people, rather than the profitability of a few companies.”

The health NGO Doctors Without Borders (MSF) also welcomed the move to spread mRNA technology to six African countries, but pointed out the need for Moderna to lend Afrigen its technical assistance and “shorten the vaccine production timeline.” (Moderna had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.)

“While the hub is undoubtedly an important initiative today and for future pandemic preparedness, the fastest way to start vaccine production in African countries and other regions with limited vaccine production is still through full and transparent transfer of vaccine know-how of already approved mRNA technologies to able companies, with existing capacity that can be retrofitted to produce mRNA vaccines,” said MSF advocacy coordinator Kate Stegeman, who noted her organization had identified over 100 such potential manufacturers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

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