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Leon Kaye headshot

Omicron Variant Underscores Push to Share mRNA Technology Worldwide

Supporters of the sharing and transfer of mRNA vaccine technology say action must be taken now, especially with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.
By Leon Kaye
Omicron variant

Despite one COVID-19 vaccine manufacturer’s recent announcement that it would suspend its fight with the U.S. government over its mRNA patent dispute, we’re still facing this reality: There’s little hope of stopping the spread of the coronavirus if poorer countries cannot access vaccines safely and cost-effectively, as we can see less than one month after South African scientists first identified the Omicron variant.

To that end, AccessIBSA, a project spanning three continents that seeks to expand both access to pharmaceuticals and accelerate the discovery of new drugs in developing countries, has issued a list of what it says are 100-plus companies in Africa, Asia and Latin America that can develop mRNA vaccines.

Here’s your quick mRNA primer: These vaccines are possible due to the development of technology that allows a molecule called messenger RNA (ribonucleic acid) to trigger an immune response. Such vaccines transmit these mRNA molecules to immune cells, which then gives the human body the ability to identify, respond and then neutralize the related virus. Such vaccine technology is what allowed for the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines.

But one disadvantage of mRNA vaccines is that many of them require ultra-cold storage after they are manufactured, thereby creating a major challenge in vaccinating citizens of development countries with vaccines that are manufactured elsewhere. Nevertheless, research and development efforts are underway to develop vaccines that don’t require extremely cold temperatures for storage, and some of the current COVID-19 vaccines — including the one Moderna now manufactures — can be stored in conventional freezers.  

Therein lies another problem: Supporters of the sharing and transfer of mRNA vaccine technology say that such action must be taken now (well actually, yesterday), especially when considering the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

“One year after multiple effective vaccines against COVID-19 were brought to market, we have failed to vaccinate the world,” wrote the authors of the AccessIBSA report earlier this month. “The distribution of vaccines remains highly unequal. In Portugal, a high-income country, 87 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated; in Nigeria, the largest country on the African continent, the corresponding figure is less than 2 percent.”

The organization added that, to date, about 74 percent of all COVID-19 vaccines distributed worldwide went to high- and middle-income nations. Meanwhile, less than 1 percent of them made their way to low-income countries, and that latter figure is rounded up, as the World Health Organization (WHO) has suggested the number is 0.6 percent. Add the surge in demand for booster shots in wealthier nations, and the Omicron variant poses an even more dire risk for citizens of poorer countries.

To that end, organizations including Human Rights Watch have urged the U.S. and German governments to take steps to allow the transfer of vaccine technology to the 120 companies identified in the AccessIBSA report. The bulk of them are in India and China; others are located in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa, Thailand, Tunisia and Vietnam.

Even before the Omicron variant provoked a new wave of travel restrictions and mandates, the WHO estimated that booster shots were occurring at a rate six times that of first vaccine doses in low-income nations.

Despite promises of delivering vaccines across the globe along with some interest by U.S. leaders to do whatever is possible to inoculate the world, the Omicron variant is proof that such steps are not moving fast enough, say many organizations.

“The development of variants depends on the extent of the spread of the virus. The more people who get COVID-19, the more opportunity the virus has to mutate,” said Dean Baker of the Center of Economic and Policy Research earlier this month. “If we had really engaged in an all-out effort to get the world vaccinated, it is likely the vast majority of the world’s population could have been vaccinated by the summer.”

Hence the argument that the sharing of technology, not the sharing of manufactured vaccines, is what needs to be done.

At its conclusion, the AccessIBSA report makes this point: “If a company in Spain such as Rovi, that produces sterile injectables, with no experience making either biologic drugs or vaccines, can make Moderna’s vaccine, then there is no reason why a company with a similar profile based in Morocco, South Africa, Brazil, India or Bangladesh, cannot do the same — should it receive a full technology transfer from Moderna, as Rovi did.”

Image credit: Gani Nurhakim via Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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