How trying to copy a COVID-19 vaccine changes the outlook for African countries

07 April 2022 | Story Kelly Chibale. Photo Unsplash. Read time 5 min.
Afrigen’s success is a major win for South Africa as well as for Africa. It means that the goal to scale up mRNA vaccine production in the targeted countries can be achieved.
Afrigen’s success is a major win for South Africa as well as for Africa. It means that the goal to scale up mRNA vaccine production in the targeted countries can be achieved.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has announced the first six African countries that will receive technology to produce messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. This comes off the back of the news that a South African consortium – part of the WHO’s technology transfer hub set up in 2021– had successfully replicated Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. Ina Skosana spoke to to the University of Cape Town’s (UCT)  Professor Kelly Chibale about the significance of the replication of the vaccine and what the next steps are.

What does the WHO technology-transfer hub do, and why is it significant?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) technology transfer hub initiative aims to fight COVID-19 vaccine access inequality by making it possible for low-income countries to manufacture their own vaccines. Currently, Africa has only 11.69% of the continent’s population fully vaccinated while over 70% of the high-income countries have already vaccinated more than 40% of their people.

This initiative – through skills and technology transfer – potentially increases Africa’s chances of providing COVID-19 immunisation to the continent’s entire population by 2024. On 3 February, Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines – a Cape Town based biotechnology company and a partner in the hub – announced that it had successfully produced the continent’s first-ever messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine.

This landmark was achieved in partnership with the University of the Witwatersrand using publicly available information to replicate Moderna’s COVID-vaccine “formula”. It shows that Africa has got the skills and technology needed to produce this type of vaccine. The hub has made it clear that it will not infringe on patents.

I believe that Afrigen’s achievement gives renewed hope for the continent’s biotechnological aspirations.

How does this advance WHO’s technology transfer initiative?

Afrigen is part of a consortium selected by the WHO last year for a pilot project to provide information on how to make COVID-19 vaccines for low- and middle-income countries. Afrigen’s success is a major win for South Africa as well as for the entire continent. It means that the goal to scale up mRNA vaccine production in the targeted countries can be achieved. This development will advance the WHO’s initiative for the training hub to build capacity for manufacturing.

It promotes self-reliance in the targeted countries. With the manufacturing capacity and access to relevant technology, African countries can reduce the dependency on international manufacturers for medicines, vaccines and supplies while building stronger health security. Also, it has been proven that African countries have scientists and experts who are equal to the task. This will reverse the narrative that Africa is not a source of health innovation as it relates to drug and vaccine discovery and development.

What are the next steps?

The first should be to demonstrate that the Afrigen produced vaccine is biologically equivalent (that is, bioequivalent) to the Moderna vaccine that was replicated.

The second is to figure out how to scale up manufacturing under good manufacturing practice conditions for accelerated clinical trials of the bioequivalent vaccine. If bioequivalence cannot be demonstrated, then long term clinical trials will be needed to demonstrate efficacy and safety of the Afrigen vaccine.

For large scale manufacturing Afrigen will share the information with Biovac – a state-owned South African vaccine producer and collaborator in the WHO hub initiative. Biovac will be the first recipient of the technology and would look into large scale good manufacturing practice. Thereafter, Afrigen is expected to share the knowledge with other local producers.

The recipients will be contributing to the collective effort to boost local vaccine production. It is anticipated that countries will be legally obligated to produce the vaccines locally. The WHO plans to scale the production of the vaccine to a commercial level at the conclusion of the approval process that is expected to come through in 2024.

Moreover, Afrigen has committed to sharing the knowledge it has by supporting the training of biotech companies in South America. Additionally, the hub intends to shift its attention to developing a variant of the mRNA vaccine that will not require cold temperatures for storage, which is a requirement for some COVID-19 vaccines.

Most importantly, the efforts don’t end here. The company is building capability and capacity on the mRNA platform for future vaccines for diseases of high burden such as HIV and TB. This is just the beginning of building sustainable and capable infrastructure for Africa.The Conversation

Kelly Chibale, Professor of Organic Chemistry, Neville Isdell Chair in African-centric Drug Discovery & Development, and Director of the Holistic Drug Discovery and Development (H3D) Centre, University of Cape Town.

This article was published in The Conversation, a collaboration between editors and academics to provide informed news analysis and commentary. Its content is free to read and republish under Creative Commons; media who would like to republish this article should do so directly from its appearance on The Conversation, using the button in the right-hand column of the webpage. UCT academics who would like to write for The Conversation should register with them; you are also welcome to find out more from

For licensing information please visit the source website.

UCT’s response to COVID-19

COVID-19 is a global pandemic that caused President Cyril Ramaphosa to declare a national disaster in South Africa on 15 March 2020 and to implement a national lockdown from 26 March 2020. UCT is taking the threat of infection in our university community extremely seriously, and this page will be updated with the latest COVID-19 information. Please note that the information on this page is subject to change depending on current lockdown regulations.

Minister of Health, Dr Joe Phaahla, has in June 2022 repealed some of South Africa’s remaining COVID-19 regulations: namely, sections 16A, 16B and 16C of the Regulations Relating to the Surveillance and the Control of Notifiable Medical Conditions under the National Health Act. We are now no longer required to wear masks or limit gatherings. Venue restrictions and checks for travellers coming into South Africa have now also been removed.

In July 2022, the University of Cape Town (UCT) revised its approach to managing the COVID-19 pandemic on UCT campuses in 2022.
Read the latest document available on the UCT policies web page.


Campus communications


Adjusting to our new environment 16:50, 23 June 2022
VC Open Lecture and other updates 17:04, 13 April 2022
Feedback from UCT Council meeting of 12 March 2022 09:45, 18 March 2022
Chair of Council
March 2022 graduation celebration 16:45, 8 March 2022
Report on the meeting of UCT Council of 21 February 2022 19:30, 21 February 2022
Chair of Council
COVID-19 management 2022 11:55, 14 February 2022
Return to campus arrangements 2022 11:15, 4 February 2022

UCT Community of Hope Vaccination Centre

On Wednesday, 20 July, staff from the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Faculty of Health Sciences came together with representatives from the Western Cape Government at the UCT Community of Hope Vaccination Centre at Forest Hill Residence to acknowledge the centre’s significance in the fight against COVID-19 and to thank its staff for their contributions. The centre opened on 1 September 2021 with the aim of providing quality vaccination services to UCT staff, students and the nearby communities, as well as to create an opportunity for medical students from the Faculty of Health Sciences to gain practical public health skills. The vaccination centre ceased operations on Friday, 29 July 2022.

With the closure of the UCT Community of Hope Vaccination Centre, if you still require access to a COVID-19 vaccination site please visit the CovidComms SA website to find an alternative.


“After almost a year of operation, the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Community of Hope Vaccination Centre, located at the Forest Hill residence complex in Mowbray, will close on Friday, 29 July 2022. I am extremely grateful and proud of all staff, students and everyone involved in this important project.”
– Vice-Chancellor Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng

With the closure of the UCT Community of Hope Vaccination Centre, if you still require access to a COVID-19 vaccination site please visit the CovidComms SA website to find an alternative.

Thank You UCT Community

Frequently asked questions


Global Citizen Asks: Are COVID-19 Vaccines Safe & Effective?

UCT’s Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM) collaborated with Global Citizen, speaking to trusted experts to dispel vaccine misinformation.

If you have further questions about the COVID-19 vaccine check out the FAQ produced by the Desmond Tutu Health Foundation (DTHF). The DTHF has developed a dedicated chat function where you can ask your vaccine-related questions on the bottom right hand corner of the website.

IDM YouTube channel | IDM website


“As a contact university, we look forward to readjusting our undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in 2023 as the COVID-19 regulations have been repealed.”
– Prof Harsha Kathard, Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Teaching and Learning

We are continuing to monitor the situation and we will be updating the UCT community regularly – as and when there are further updates. If you are concerned or need more information, students can contact the Student Wellness Service on 021 650 5620 or 021 650 1271 (after hours), while staff can contact 021 650 5685.