• NIH obtaining capability to make mRNA jabs but biotech capacity still lacking
• Team sent to South Korea for training after patent waiver

ISLAMABAD: Following a waiver by the World Trade Organisation, which eases intellectual property restrictions on mRNA vaccines, Pakistan looks poised to domestically produce jabs using this advanced technology but due to lack of technical capacity this “golden opportunity” may not materialise.

The waiver provides Pakistan an opportunity to produce jabs using mRNA technology — vaccines that use a copy of a molecule called messenger RNA to build immune response — as in addition to Covid-19 jabs, this will also pave way for the production of vaccines against other viral diseases.

But there’s a major hiccup. Pakistan does not have a biotechnology plant to manufacture the latest type of vaccines, University of Health Sciences (UHS) Vice Chancellor Dr Javed Akram said.

A senior official of the Ministry of National Health Services, on condition of anonymity, said that the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver provided a “golden opportunity for Pakistan”.

The TRIPS waiver proposal was tabled by India and South Africa in October 2020. It sought to temporarily waive restrictions on patents and other intellectual property barriers, in a bid to speed up manufacturing and ease access to lifesaving products amid the Covid pandemic.

Read: Too late to lift Covid vaccine patents?

The official said the NIH was among 15 companies from as many states, which were being trained to produce the mRNA vaccines at Afrigen Biologics, a South African firm at the core of the hub, and added that maximum efforts were being utilised to avail this chance. “We have sent a three-member team to the International Vaccine Institute (IVI) of South Korea for the training,” the official confirmed.

The NIH official disclosed that the institute had a number of machines being used for the production of vaccines to combat rabies, measles and cholera. “As many as six studies have been conducted at NIH and now we have been considering manufacturing vaccines through a public-private partnership,” he said, adding, “A policy will have to be approved first.”

Dr Akram, who is also member of the Scientific Task Force on Covid-19, said that currently Pfizer and Moderna jabs were the only mRNA vaccines used in Pakistan. He expressed concerns about Pakistan’s ability to take advantage of the waiver, saying that Islamabad does not have a single biotech plant used to produce such vaccines. He advocated for the involvement of the private sector in the production of advanced jabs. According to the vice chancellor, steps taken to increase the presence of the private companies in the pharma sector were “discouraged” in the past for lack of “favourable policies and tax breaks”.

“I had contacted Pakistan Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (PPMA) and they made a consortium to build a biotechnology plant. Even funds were raised by the association, but the government could not give [us] assurance for favourable policies, including tax holiday,” he said, adding that then CJP Nisar had summoned him to brief the court on the issue. The issue is still pending in court, he added.

Dr Akram suggested that Pakistan should capitalise on the opportunity by involving the private sector as it was not the job of the government to establish a biotechnology plant investing billions of rupees.”

Health Services Academy Vice Chancellor Dr Shahzad Ali Khan, while talking to Dawn, said: “It is the most advanced technology in which artificially genetic material is produced and injected into the human body to reduce chances of infection.

He added, “The mRNA vaccines are beneficial for a large number of diseases and I am hopeful that in future HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) will also be controlled through these jabs.”

Tech transfer hub

According to details, while a number of countries still could not be able to vaccinate even half of their population against Covid-19, the mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub seeks to empower low and middle-income countries to produce their own vaccines instead of relying on other regions of the world.

Fifteen companies from 15 countries are now learning how to make mRNA vaccines against Covid-19 at Afrigen Biologics, a South African firm at the core of the hub. These countries include Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, Argentina, Brazil, Senegal, Nigeria, Tunisia, South Africa, Serbia, Egypt, Kenya, and Ukraine.

Published in Dawn, July 22nd, 2022

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