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Vaccines for Africa

In Cape Town, South Africa, a tiny biotech startup is taking on Big Pharma as it looks to create an mRNA Covid-19 vaccine and share the technology with the world for free. If the plan succeeds, it could radically alter the entire global system of vaccine production, with massive consequences for developing nations and the pharmaceutical industry alike. The company, Afrigen Biologics, is at the heart of a unique global project backed by the WHO to enable low- and middle-income countries to manufacture mRNA vaccines against a range of diseases. The initiative was launched after the Covid-19 pandemic laid bare the stark inequalities in access to vaccines and the urgent need for the developing world to end its dependency on the West. As of the end of 2022, only two companies, Pfizer-Biontech and Moderna, were successfully producing mRNA vaccines, and neither was willing to share its technology.

Under the leadership of its charismatic CEO, Petro Terblanche, Afrigen has managed nevertheless, shattering widely held beliefs about Africa's inability to compete in the vaccine manufacturing industry. Its first Covid-19 vaccine has proven effective in animal trials and is due to go into human trials this year. Each day brings new challenges for the tight-knit team that works here, but already Terblanche is looking beyond Covid to other diseases, and her office is being inundated with requests from labs and scientists all over the world looking to team up to create mRNA vaccines for everything from TB to HIV. The company's premises in northern Cape Town are a hive of activity and optimism, and the firm is expanding so quickly that its construction team can hardly keep up. Two years ago, Afrigen was virtually unknown outside Cape Town's tiny biotech scene. Now, Terblanche believes, it's poised to change the world.
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