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The news: The World Health Organization and the global vaccine campaign COVAX are partnering with a consortium of African organizations to establish a tech transfer hub for COVID-19 vaccines in South Africa.

The consortium includes drugmakers Biovac and Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, a network of universities and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

The project aims to boost vaccine production and increase access for countries that don’t have enough doses. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that relying on a few companies to supply global, public goods is limiting and dangerous,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a press conference on Monday.

How it works: The tech transfer hub will be a facility where manufacturers from low- and middle-income countries can get the training necessary to produce mRNA vaccines, the platform used by Moderna and Pfizer.

The hub will also help those manufacturers get the licenses they need to make the vaccine. The United Nations-backed public health organization Medicines Patent Pool will help manufacturers navigate the intellectual property issues associated with tech transfer. 

Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Afrigen will manufacture vaccines at the site, which already has a pilot plant running, and provide training to Biovac. Afrigen could provide training to more companies in the future.

Background: Several countries with developed economies have fully vaccinated 50% or more of their citizens. 

Countries in Africa are much further behind. More than a dozen African countries have yet to fully vaccinate 1% of their citizens, according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker.  

“The countries in the economic developing world are still struggling,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said at the WHO press conference.

Timing: WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan said the new hub could start producing vaccines within nine to 12 months if large companies, such as Pfizer or Moderna, get on board. 

Pfizer and Moderna have already run large clinical trials to prove that they’re safe and effective, so companies could start making it quickly. 

The hub could also partner with smaller companies that have mRNA vaccines that are in earlier stages of development. WHO already has some agreements with smaller companies that want to collaborate with the tech transfer hub.

Those vaccines would need to go through large clinical trials before they could be distributed, stretching out the timeline, Swaminathan said.

“It’s obviously much easier to transfer a technology that’s proven, that’s gone through clinical trials, that’s proven to be safe and efficacious,” she said. 

Swaminathan said the WHO was talking with Pfizer and Moderna about participating in the hub, but it wasn’t clear how far those discussions have progressed. WHO is pursuing partnerships with both large and small companies simultaneously, Swaminathan said.

BioNTech is already planning to open a “fill and finish” plant for vaccines in Africa in the next year, according to the Financial Times. Opening a facility capable of more technical parts of the manufacturing process could take several years.

The caveats: WHO Director-General Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that this tech transfer hub will help scale up African production in the medium term, but added that supporting COVAX is the most important action to improve vaccine distribution in the short term. 

Along with India, South Africa is asking the World Trade Organization to relax some intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines.  South African President Ramaphosa said that’s still an important step to increase access.

Swaminathan said IP rights aren’t currently a huge barrier to vaccine production in Africa, but argued that relaxing those rights could make it somewhat easier to scale up manufacturing.

The future: The WHO says it could open more tech transfer hubs if needed. The organization received 28 offers to share mRNA technology or host a tech transfer hub and 25 requests from low-income countries that want to produce the vaccine.

While these hubs may not provide an immediate solution to vaccine access, Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he’s hopeful they will increase total vaccine capacity going forward. Ramaphosa said Africa is ready.

“On the African continent, we’ve got capabilities. They just need to be ignited. We’ve got expertise. It just needs to be unlocked,” Ramaphosa said. “Through this, we’re going to unlock it.”