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WHO’s Director General visits SU genomics lab
Author: FMHS Marketing & Communications
Published: 11/02/2022

​​​​​​​​Stellenbosch University's (SU) Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS) hosted a high-level international delegation, led by Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), at its Tygerberg campus in Cape Town, South Africa today (Friday, 11 February 2022).

This visit to the FMHS' Biomedical Research Institute (BMRI) forms part of a two-day tour to inspect the facilities that will make up Africa's first Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing hub. The high-level delegation included the South African Minister of Health, Dr Joe Phaahla, the South African Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Mr Buti Manamela, the Belgian Minister of Development Cooperation, Ms Meryame Kitir, members of the WHO and other national and international stakeholders.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the 'vaccine gap' between the developing and developed worlds, posing a serious health threat to the people of Africa. As a leading health sciences faculty on the continent, we are committed to finding solutions to health challenges facing the people of South Africa and the African continent. We are excited to be part of the first Covid mRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub that will help build vaccine development and manufacturing capacity in Africa and establish Africa's vaccine independence," says Prof Elmi Muller, Dean of the FMHS.

SU's Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI) is a partner-member of the South African mRNA Vaccine Consortium (SAMVAC), selected by the WHO to become the first Covid mRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub. The purpose of the hub is to develop vaccine research and manufacturing capacity on the African continent. CERI's role in this consortium is the genomic surveillance and identification of variants in Africa.

CERI (a new centre that will officially be launched later this year) is envisioned to be the largest genomics facility in Africa and is headed by Prof Tulio de Oliveira, world-renowned bioinformatician and professor of bioinformatics at SU.

“We are very excited to be selected to be part of the first WHO mRNA hub in the world that builds on our expertise in genomics and passion for capacity development. The mRNA hub is not only about manufacturing vaccines, but will build capacity on the continent," says De Oliveira.

The BMRI, where CERI is located, is a large infrastructural investment of more than a billion rand by SU and the South African Department of Science and Innovation. It is on par with the most advanced biomedical research facilities in the world and will host many world-class research groups in South Africa.

“The BMRI has world-class infrastructure and houses leading South African biomedical researchers who are at the forefront of efforts to develop African solutions for challenging African health problems. The infrastructure investment will allow significant human capacity development through training of some of the best students from the continent and exposing them to extensive national and international research networks to result in a next generation of successful scientists," says Prof Gerhard Walzl, Executive Head of the FMHS' Department of Biomedical Sciences.

De Oliveira's research is aimed at responding effectively to epidemics through pathogen genomics surveillance. This work enables enhanced biomedical discovery, improved treatment and diagnosis, better vaccine development to prevent human disease, and has the potential to lead global research in this field and generate significant economic opportunities for Africa.

SU Rector and Vice-Chancellor Prof Wim de Villiers commented on the significance of the visit: “Stellenbosch University is proud to be part of this initiative and we applaud the contributions of all role players. As a leading research-intensive institution, we strive to advance knowledge in service of society. In everything we do, we try to be locally relevant, regionally impactful and globally competitive. The cutting-edge research and purposeful partnerships involved in this initiative will help make South Africa, Africa and the world a better place. By improving healthcare everywhere, this initiative will help counter the inequity exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic."


Photo by Nardus Engelbrecht
From left: Ms Meryame Kitir (Belgium’s Minister of Development Cooperation), Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (Director-General, WHO) Prof Wim de Villiers (Rector, Stellenbosch University)



Covid mRNA Vaccine Technology Hub

The WHO and its COVAX partners are working with a South African consortium comprising Biovac, Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, a network of universities and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to establish its first Covid mRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub.

Technology transfer hubs are training facilities where the technology is established at industrial scale and clinical development performed. Interested manufacturers from low- and middle-income countries can receive training and any necessary licenses to the technology. The WHO and partners will bring in the production know-how, quality control and necessary licenses to a single entity to facilitate a broad and rapid technology transfer to multiple recipients.

The organisations involved in the hub complement one another and can each take on different roles within the proposed collaboration: Afrigen will act as developer, Biovac as manufacturer, a consortium of universities as academic supporters providing mRNA know-how, and Africa CDC will provide technical and regional support.

The South African hub will teach African manufacturers how to make mRNA vaccines, like the Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines. Foreign manufacturers will share techniques with local institutions and the WHO and partners will bring in production know-how, quality control and will assist with getting the necessary licenses.

The mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub

FAQ - The mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub


Biomedical Research Institute

The aim of this research institute is to understand the diseases that have the greatest impact on communities in South Africa and the rest of Africa.

This R1 billion facility, which is set to be completed at the end of 2022, is one of the most innovative and advanced biomedical research centres in Africa and will advance SU's capacity to undertake world-class research on the leading health problems affecting African and South African people. It will also contribute considerably to building research capability on the African continent.

The new BMRI is on par with the most advanced biomedical research facilities and allows for the immediate expansion of SU's current research activities, including bioinformatics, surgical sciences and solutions to address the Covid-19 pandemic.