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The WHO’s mRNA technology is heading to Asia and Europe, just weeks after its first COVID-19 vaccine prototype was unveiled

February 23, 2022, 2:30 PM UTC

The mRNA vaccine technology that’s being developed by the World Health Organization and South African scientists will soon be shared with several Asian and European countries, the WHO has announced.

The project has so far produced a prototype COVID-19 vaccine that is similar but not identical to Moderna’s⁠. It is based on the same openly available sequence, but Moderna’s refusal to aid the scheme (beyond promising not to enforce its patents during the pandemic) has forced WHO partner Afrigen to figure out the rest itself. Given this lack of help, it may take years before the vaccines can be produced at scale, but the plan is to use the underlying technology beyond this pandemic, potentially to combat things like HIV and cancer as well as the coronavirus.

The prototype was announced just a few weeks ago. In a sign of how quickly the technology’s dissemination is ramping up, the WHO said Wednesday that the technology would soon be on its way to Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, Serbia, and Vietnam, all of which have “the capacity to absorb the technology and, with targeted training, move to production stage relatively quickly.”

Just last week, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia joined a list of recipients that has, since the project’s 2021 launch, also included Argentina and Brazil.

The United Nations agency also announced that it and South Korea had established a biomanufacturing training hub, so low- and middle-income countries have some help when they want to make vaccines, monoclonal antibodies, cancer treatments, and insulin.

“One of the key barriers to successful technology transfer in low- and middle-income countries is the lack of a skilled workforce and weak regulatory systems, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a statement. “Building those skills will ensure that they can manufacture the health products they need at a good quality standard so that they no longer have to wait at the end of the queue.”

The WHO’s push to create and spread new mRNA technology is part of its effort to rectify gross inequalities in COVID-19 vaccine distribution during the pandemic. This inequality is largely the result of production constraints—rich countries have hogged the limited supplies, which is why just 17% of Africans have received a first dose—that are compounded by pharma firms’ refusal to share their technology and Europe’s refusal to compel them to do so. (The EU does, however, back the WHO’s efforts to stimulate production through schemes such as its mRNA technology transfer program.)

“This is the kind of solution that developing countries need,” said Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Lestari Priansari Marsudi on Wednesday. “A solution that empowers and strengthens our self-reliance, as well as a solution that allows us to contribute to global health resilience.”

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