In April 2023 the participants of the mRNA Technology Transfer Programme met for their first face-to-face meeting in Cape Town. The meeting reviewed the progress made by the Programme since it was launched by WHO and Medicines Patent Pool (MPP) in June 2021. The meeting was joined by WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as well as senior officials from South Africa and funding countries.  

Gathering experts 

The meeting participants comprised biomanufacturing partners from 15 countries, alongside industry experts, civil society representatives, and funders. The 5-day meeting will enable participants to “share progress” and “discuss critical enables for the sustainability of the Programme”, says WHO. These include intellectual property issues and regulatory aspects, as well as the science of mRNA technologies.  

Gross inequity 

WHO states that the COVID-19 pandemic has “underscored that gross inequity exists in access to health products, especially vaccines”. In March 2023, over three years after the declaration of a PHEIC, only 69.7% of the global population had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Sadly, this is disproportionately spread across the world, remaining below 30% in low-income countries.  

In our interview with Dr Ike James of MPP this year, he commented on the importance of “sustainable manufacturing” 

“The pandemic has revealed the weaknesses in the existing pull and push mechanisms for vaccine research, development, and manufacturing.”   

WHO suggests that the Programme will aim to achieve the sustainable manufacturing that Dr James mentions.  

“This Programme aims to contribute to equitable access to mRNA vaccines by increasing the distribution of sustainable manufacturing capacity across LMICs, enhancing regional and inter-regional collaborations, and developing and empowering a local workforce through tailored and inclusive training and expert support.”  

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus commented on the importance of a “sustainable model” for mRNA technology transfer to “give low- and middle-income countries equitable access to vaccines and other lifesaving health products”.  

“I am immensely proud of the achievement of all those involved in this project; in less than two years we have shown that when we work collaboratively, we succeed collectively.”  

Empowering for the future 

Dr Joe Phaahla, Minister of Health for South Africa, described the meeting as a “moment in history”, with the Programme “aimed at empowering LMICs through a global collaborative network”.  

“I am thrilled to see the progress made in such a relatively short time and welcome the support from so many different countries – countries like South Africa that have a strong vibrant biomanufacturing capacity and that are willing to work together, learn from, and share with each other.”  

Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and Science, believes that the “vision” of the Technology Transfer Hub goes “beyond just COVID-19″.  

“The capabilities we are building are looking to empower us to deal with other future pandemics whose vaccines could use the same mRNA technology platform.” 

Working with Afrigen 

The occasion also marked the inauguration of the mRNA technology Hub facility at Afrigen, with a ribbon cutting ceremony! Professor Petro Terblanche is Executive Director of Afrigen, and spoke for the “entire team”, which is “thrilled to reach this important milestone”. Professor Terblanche stated that over the last 18 months Afrigen has “undergone an incredible transformation”. 

“We have grown our capability and capacity to meet the highest quality standards of mRNA vaccine development, serving the objective to build sustainable capacity in LMICs to produce mRNA vaccines.” 

Funding partners 

Representatives from the European Commission, Belgium, Germany, Norway, Canada, African Union, South Africa, and the ELMA Foundation were present. Total funding so far has met $117 million, with France being the first to fund the mRNA technology transfer work. Caroline Delany, representing Canada, reaffirmed the country’s “continued support” of the Programme, delightedly announcing a “further contribution of 15 million Canadian dollars”.  

“We firmly believe in the importance of building capacity at local and regional level.” 

Martin Seychell, Deputy Executive Director of the European Commission, commented that the Commission has “already contributed €40 million” to the Hub, and has “recently signed another grant with the EIB for €15.5 million to facilitate the expansion of vaccines manufacturing capacity”.  

“It is now particularly important to also address the possible regulatory and demand bottlenecks, to ensure not only production of vaccines of the highest standard in all regions of the world, but also rapid and equitable access to those vaccines.”

We had the privilege of speaking to Professor Terblanche at the World Vaccine Congress in Washington a few weeks ago, and look forward to sharing the details of our conversation soon. To ensure that you don’t miss out, subscribe to updates here