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WHO to create COVID-19 vaccine hub in South Africa

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said the move to create a COVID-19 vaccine hub in his country will improve manufacturing for the entire continent. Photo by Gianluigi Guercia/EPA-EFE
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said the move to create a COVID-19 vaccine hub in his country will improve manufacturing for the entire continent. Photo by Gianluigi Guercia/EPA-EFE

June 21 (UPI) -- The World Health Organization announced Monday it is establishing a hub in South Africa where manufacturers from low- and middle-income countries can gain the knowledge and licenses necessary to produce their own vaccines against the coronavirus.

The WHO has for months warned against the inequitable access to vaccines worldwide with richer nations seeking to inoculate their entire populations against the virus at the expense of lives in poorer countries.

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In mid-April, due to the urgent need for vaccines in poorer nations, particularly those in Africa, the WHO issued a call to see interest in establishing a transfer hub for mRNA vaccine technology, which is used in the creation of some of the coronavirus jabs, in order to manufacture their own COVID-19 vaccines.

"Today, I am delighted to announce that WHO is in discussions with a consortium of companies and institutions to establish a technology transfer hub in South Africa," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters during a press conference, explaining the WHO will lead the effort by establishing the criteria for technology transfer, assessing applications and developing standards and proving support and training.

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The WHO head said they had received more than 50 proposals from its April request from those wanting to participate in these training hubs -- half from companies and institutions wanting the mRNRA technology and half from those with the knowledge.

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The majority of the companies involved in the endeavor are smaller firms but Soumya Swaminathan, WHO's lead scientist, said they are speaking with larger mRNA companies "and hope very much they will come on board."

"We could see within nine to 12 months vaccines being produced in Africa," she said.

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The announcement was made amid a push to vaccinate those in the African continent where the virus continues to surge.

Tedros said while richer countries that are able to inoculate their citizens against the virus are seeing their daily cases and deaths decrease, the number in Africa has increased by nearly 40% in the past week with some countries experiencing their number of deaths triple or quadruple.

According to Oxford University's Our World in Data project, while nearly 22% of the world has received at least one shot of a vaccine, only 0.9% of those in low-income nations have received the life-saving jab.

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On the African continent, the number is 2.4%, it said.

In April, days before it issued its call for interest in the hub, the WHO said of the nearly 700 million vaccine doses administered less than 2% were in Africa where countries had only received their first shipments five weeks earlier.

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The WHO said its COVAX distribution project aims to provide the 43 African nations with up to 600 million doses by the end of the year in order to inoculate at least 20% of its more than 1.3 billion people. It is unclear if these transfer hubs will alter those figures.

However, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa described the transfer as a "landmark initiative" in advancing efforts to build vaccine development and manufacturing on the continent in order for it to create "a path to self determination."

"South Africa welcomes the opportunity to host a vaccine technology transfer hub and to build on the capacity and expertise that already exists on the continent to contribute to this effort," he said.

South Africa has been leading an effort for the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines in order for poorer countries to gain the technology necessary to combat the virus.

During the press conference Monday, he said they are continuing with this effort.

"We from Africa have been calling for the capability, the capacity that needs to be transferred to Africa, so that we can also make our own vaccines. It's been shown now that we cannot rely on vaccines that are made outside of Africa because they never come, they never arrive on time and people continue to die."

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He called the creation of the hub "a phenomenal step but it is a step that needs to be taken as we move to the realization of what we've proposed."

Following the announcement, Doctors Without Borders called the idea of the hubs "a welcomed step" but urged companies such as Moderna and Pfizer-BioNtech, which are larger companies that produce COVID-19 vaccines through their own patented mRNA technology, to share their knowledge with it.

"What needs to happen next is Moderna and Pfizer-BioNtech must immediately shore their mRNA technology with the hub so that many more mRNA vaccines can be produced independently by manufacturers in South Africa and more broadly on the African continent," Kate Stegeman, advocacy coordinator at DWB's Access Campaign in South Africa, said in a statement.

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