SA races ahead of Nigeria to fund post-COVID strategy

More than a year after Nigeria secured a spot on the first list of six African countries to receive the mRNA vaccine technology to build an independent vaccine production system, Africa’s largest economy has yet to unveil strategies to set the process in motion, particularly funding.

The transfer of the technology, which birthed the unconventional rise of vaccines of high efficacy such as Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines, was designed to help African countries leap decades of underdevelopment in pharmaceutical infrastructure, arriving at a point where they can rely on domestic capacity for large production within a short period.

Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Senegal, South Africa, and Tunisia were the six countries successful in their applications to the World Health Organization (WHO) for the technology in February 2022.

But Nigeria appears to be slumbering on the race track as others pick up gradually.

South Africa has raised over 50 percent of the estimated budget of roughly €92 million to execute the project within five year, Martin Friede, coordinator, Initiative for Vaccine Research Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals at WHO, said during a discourse.

The country’s projection indicates that it will be able to raise 56 percent of the total required funding at minimum and 69 percent at maximum.

About €39 million will cover the preparation of facilities to receive technology, and review of intellectual property agreements and regulatory process for the facility in the first phase of execution.

That amount will also cover pre-clinical and clinical trials, preparation of clinical protocols, and opening and maintenance of training centre.

In the second phase, €30 million will focus on establishing a plan for equipment and processes, training staff to receive technology from Afrigen, performing demonstration and process validation, producing vaccine.

The last tranche of the fund, €23 million, if fully raised, will be channelled to build a pipeline of vaccine candidates including for tuberculosis, HIV and other infectious diseases. It will also be deployed to optimise technology for lower-middle-income countries and collaborate with genomic sequencing centres.

According to WHO, the plan will involve Afrigen in clinical trials, Biovac in production of materials for clinical trials in 2023 and the South African Medical Research Council, among other collaborators.

Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines is linked to South African universities and pharmaceutical companies based in 15 countries, including Senegal, Argentina and Indonesia.

Apart from South Africa, countries such as Egypt appear better poised to receive and the deploy the technology considering available infrastructure and experience in vaccine production in recent years.

Since 2021, Egypt has been producing the Chinese Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine using a domestic factory and export to Africa.

Egypt’s private sector company Minapharm also signed an agreement in 2021 with Russian Direct Investment Fund to locally produce Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine.

In November 2021, Egypt also announced the start of clinical trials for its first domestic coronavirus vaccine, COVI-VAX.

Analysts’ optimism appears to be the only early signs of the potential that Nigeria will follow through on its goal to adopt the technology.

Oyewale Tomori, retired professor of Virology and former vice-chancellor of Redeemers University, said Biovaccine Nigeria Limited, the company at the centre of Nigeria’s vaccine plant project, began activities to ensure all the necessary steps were taken as soon as Nigeria’s selection was announced.

The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control set the ball rolling and Biovaccine Nigeria Limited got involved in the completion of the documentation and the interviews. The Federal Ministry of Health went on the diplomatic shuttle, Tomori explained.

“That combination made sure Nigeria was succeeding. The fact that the government was involved in the diplomatic shuttle gives us confidence that the government will support this time. I don’t think they can afford to fail. We have been on this for quite a long time,” he said.

“We have to succeed, otherwise we become a laughingstock to entire world. This is a country chosen out of so many other countries and it is a race to ensure we get to that place.”

Plans on what the federal government is up is not clear yet. Questions directed at the ministry of health was not immediately responded to at the time of writing.

Future of mRNA

According to Ernest & Young, RNA platforms will likely continue to solidify as a therapeutic concept and capture a tangible share of the preventive vaccines market.

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Beyond the near-term COVID-19 opportunity, the mRNA market is expected to grow significantly, reaching almost $5 billion by 2025.

Riding on current mRNA successes, many mRNA startups, spread mainly across the US and Europe, have secured approximately $4.6 billion in investment flows.

There are several great ideas for the application of mRNA therapies beyond the use in preventive medicine though infectious diseases remain the second-largest group by numbers of trials based on our pipeline scan, with approximately 30 percent.

As the potential for using mRNA in eliciting an immune response has been also seen as an interesting option in the treatment of cancer, the largest number of current research projects is focused on that therapy area — often in trials on personalized therapies.

But mRNA is also emerging in other disease areas and with other mechanisms of action, including the production of hormones or cytokines in areas such as metabolic diseases, cardiovascular diseases, or respiratory illnesses.