WHO: Africa mRNA vaccine hub expands to 6 nations

COVID vaccination in Rwanda
COVID vaccination in Rwanda

USAID/Rwanda / Flickr cc

Six Arican countries were tapped yesterday to receive technology to produce mRNA vaccines, part of a plan to boost supply and production in that part of the world.

In US COVID-19 developments, more states eased their mask mandates, leaving Hawaii the only one with the measure still in place.

Vaccine hub targets equity, country priorities

At a summit in Brussels between the European Union and the African Union, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the recipients of the mRNA technology are Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, and Tunisia.

The designations are part of a global mRNA technology transfer hub set up in 2021 to support vaccine makers in low- and middle-income countries to produce their own vaccine at quantities needed and by international standards.

In a statement, the WHO said the transfer hub was mainly established to address the COVID-19 threat, but it has the potential to expand manufacturing capacity for other priorities such as diabetes drugs, cancer treatments, and vaccines for other conditions, giving countries a lead role in producing the vaccines they need to address their own health priorities.

The WHO and its partners said they will work with the countries to set up a roadmap, with training and support, to begin producing vaccine as soon as possible.

"In the mid- to long-term, the best way to address health emergencies and reach universal health coverage is to significantly increase the capacity of all regions to manufacture the health products they need, with equitable access as their primary endpoint," Tedros said.

A South African consortium had been selected to run the global hub and is already producing vaccine and is in the process of scaling up and validating the production process. Training for the six new recipients begins in March.

A 'welcome milestone'

In response to the new development, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) welcomed the announcement that six countries will receive technology from the WHO's mRNA technology transfer hub in South Africa. Kate Stegeman, African regional advocacy coordinator for MSF's Access Campaign, said in a statement, "This announcement marks a welcome milestone on the road to expanding vaccine manufacturing capacity in lower- and middle-income countries."

However, the group said the timeline for the hub producing a final mRNA vaccine candidate is considerable. Noting that the prototype is based on Moderna's vaccine model, MSF called on Moderna to immediately share its technology and know-how so that manufacturers can more quickly boost global supply.

African officials have welcomed vaccine donations from abroad, including from the WHO-led COVAX program, but have also signaled that they would like to produce their own vaccine. Vaccine experts have also supported a more global production system as a way to more quickly and equitably scale up supplies.

In a related development this week, Germany-based BioNTech introduced module container labs that would allow mRNA vaccine to be made in Africa. Bulk product would be made in the labs, and local companies would handle fill-and-finish steps. The first is set to arrive in Africa in the last half of the year, with shipments to Rwanda, Senegal, and, possibly, South Africa.

Asia grapples with Omicron surges

In other global developments, Asian locations that are experiencing later Omicron variant surges continue their battle against the virus.

South Korea's daily cases topped 100,000 for the first time, yet officials say serious cases have been manageable, according to Reuters.

Due to the pressure on systems, though, the country has scaled back on tracking and quarantine measures and are urging people who have no or mild symptoms to care for themselves at home. South Korea is easing its nighttime quarantine for restaurants and other businesses ahead of its Mar 9 presidential election.

Elsewhere, Hong Kong—also in the middle of a surge—announced that it will delay the election of a new leader until May.

Japan's cases are starting to decline, but officials are reporting record daily deaths. Officials are also fine-tuning COVID-19 measures to target the worst-affected prefectures.

All states but Hawaii loosen mask mandates

All US states except Hawaii have announced measures to relax mask mandates in recent weeks, the New York Times reports.

Yesterday California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a plan that marks a shift to an endemic approach to the coronavirus, emphasizing prevention and quick reaction to outbreaks over mandated masking and business shutdowns, the Associated Press reports.

"We are moving past the crisis phase into a phase where we will work to live with this virus," Newsom said during a press conference. "This pandemic won't have a defined end."

The United States reported 96,603 new COVID-19 cases yesterday and 3,223 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker.

The HHS Protect Public Data Hub shows 68,902 US inpatient beds currently in use for COVID-19.

CIDRAP News Reporter Stephanie Soucheray contributed to this story.

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