In an industrial area in the northern Cape, dozens of cars are parked in front of the Afrigen laboratories. Since the start-up specializing in adjuvants was chosen by the World Health Organization (WHO), with a South African consortium, to develop the first messenger RNA vaccine against Covid-19 in Africa, the workforce increased from 12 to 90 employees.
It is 9:30 a.m., the R&D team has just finished its weekly meeting with scientists from the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, which has been providing its expertise on messenger RNA since the start of the project. Thanks to this collaboration, Afrigen announced last January that it had successfully developed its first RNA vaccine candidate against Covid-19, seven months after the launch of the project.
A snub to the major laboratories who claimed that it was impossible to transfer this technology to countries in the South. “None of the major Covid vaccine producers helped us. So, we did it ourselves to show the world that it’s possible to do it here, on the African continent.underlines, the nose on his microscope, Gerhardt Boukes, scientific director at Afrigen. At the moment we are building the data on the vaccine. There, I am testing its safety on liver cells. »
So far, the results are encouraging, and tests on the immune response or toxicity have proven conclusive. Trials on mice are underway, but it will take until April 2023 for the first clinical trials on humans, and two more years to hope to see this vaccine marketed. “We hope that our vaccine can serve as a booster, explains Petro Terblanche, director of Afrigen and conductor of the project. But the important thing is above all to validate the production platform, which is why we have to go through the whole process. »
Because the mission entrusted by the WHO is above all to build a technology transfer center for the southern hemisphere. A project at 117 million dollars (as many euros) over five years which should allow 15 other countries to appropriate the technology of messenger RNA. So, throughout the year, the scientists of the selected laboratories followed one another in Afrigen to train. “It’s becoming the biggest technology transfer in world history.enthuses Petro Terblanche. It is very complex to manage, because normally technological transfers are bilateral and limited. But the essence of this project is accessibility. »
Fight against diseases that are of little interest to Western laboratories
Beyond the vaccine against Covid-19, this network of laboratories aims to develop messenger RNA vaccines for diseases of little interest to Western laboratories. “We have already activated a project for tuberculosis and we are in discussion for other vaccine projects: against HIV, Rift Valley fever and West Nile virus. »
For the moment, in Afrigen, we take care of the calibration and the cleaning of the new machines. Some are delayed due to increased global demand since the pandemic. For the future brand new vaccine production unit, a filtration device is being delivered. “Pretend not to see the boxes lying around!” », quips Madelyn Johnstone-Robertson, a specialist in bioprocesses.
The production unit operational at the end of the year
That day, she trained in the use of a large tank recently installed, a giant mixer to make solutions in large volumes. “We are waiting to have all the machines and then we will spend a week cleaning the equipment and washing the laboratory from top to bottom. Then, access will be much more controlled to respect the conditions of sterility. » The production unit should be operational by the end of the year. A new page in the adventure of the first 100% African messenger RNA vaccine.
Covid-19 in Africa, the ebb
The number of deaths from the Covid-19 pandemic in Africa should decrease by nearly 94% in 2022, the WHO predicted in June, compared to 2021, the deadliest year of the pandemic.
In 2022, the daily number of deaths due to the Covid-19 pandemic is estimated at around 60, compared to an average of 970 in 2021.
The gap between the number of cases of infection and deaths in 2022 is due to the increase in vaccination, improved pandemic response and natural immunity resulting from previous infections which, without preventing re-infections, halt severe disease and death.