Charity failed to provide adequate vaccines for the global south. Now, 15 countries are seeing whether an open-science model can end a dangerous legacy of dependency.
By Amy Maxmen
13 July 2022
Travel for this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
Vast, ongoing delays in the global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines have resulted in death on a massive scale and arguably allowed the evolution of the Omicron variant, which was first reported in South Africa late last year. Such inequities are jarring, but hardly new. Many years passed before life-saving vaccines and drugs for pneumonia and HIV were widely available in Africa, and important treatments for cancer and cystic fibrosis that are common in rich countries remain almost unobtainable in poorer ones.
At the root of the problem lies a dependence on the limited goodwill of countries — mainly in the global north — where the majority of large pharmaceutical companies are based. That’s why more than a dozen countries in the global south are banding together with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other groups in a long-term initiative to build vaccine- and drug-making capacity throughout Africa, South America, Asia and Eastern Europe. “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that reliance on a few companies to supply global public goods is limiting and dangerous,” said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as he announced the initiative last year.
Called the mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub, the initiative is built around the shiny new promise of messenger RNA as a tool for vaccines and drugs. At the hub’s core is a small biotechnology firm in Cape Town, South Africa, called Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines. It is linked to South African universities and pharmaceutical companies based in 15 countries, including Senegal, Argentina and Indonesia (see ‘Changing the equation’). Together, these groups aim to make their own effective mRNA vaccine against COVID-19, before expanding into other diseases that are relevant to their regions, be it HIV, Zika or measles.