CAPE TOWN, Feb 18 ― Moderna Inc has applied for patents in South Africa relating to its Covid-19 vaccine, prompting fears among charities that the company could eventually seek to prevent a new African vaccine manufacturing hub from making its own version of the mRNA shot, although a Moderna spokeswoman said it did not plan to do so.

Moderna spokeswoman Colleen Hussey confirmed it had filed for patents “related to both the Covid-19 vaccine and Moderna's platform technology” in South Africa and elsewhere, after a group of 60 Africa-based charities raised concerns about them.

But she reiterated Moderna's October 2020 pledge not to enforce its Covid-19 related patents during the coronavirus pandemic.

South Africa's Afrigen Biologics has already used the publicly available sequence of Moderna's vaccine to make its own version of the vaccine, and plans to start human clinical trials in November.

Charities have raised concerns that the company would take steps to enforce its patents once the pandemic transitions out of the emergency phase and disrupt plans like Afrigen's.

Asked in an email about this risk, Hussey said Moderna's intellectual property “will not create a barrier” to distribution of Afrigen Bioligics' Covid vaccine in low and middle-income countries “now or in the future.”

That statement conflicted with comments by Chief Executive Stéphane Bancel, who told Reuters this week that after the pandemic phase ends, Moderna will enforce its patent for richer nations, but said, “We have not decided yet for low- and middle-income countries.”

Asked about the apparent conflict in an email, Hussey said that Bancel misspoke.

Afrigen Biologics Managing Director Petro Terblanche told Reuters in a text message the company had received no communication from the company about the patent filings, adding that they would “truly value their collaboration.”

“There are patents filed in South Africa and other low-and-middle income countries by Moderna that, unless those are revoked, or voluntary licenses are awarded or Moderna will waive it, it will impact on our freedom to operate,” Terblanche said.

The charities fear Moderna will enforce them when Covid-19 is declared endemic, Tian Johnson, founder of the African Alliance, said in a joint statement.

This “would effectively derail all work the World Health Organization and African scientists have put into building vaccine manufacturing capacity on the continent,” he added.

The Africa vaccine hub has WHO backing, as part of a pilot project to give poor and middle-income countries the know-how to make Covid-19 vaccines.

On Wednesday, BioNTech's co-founder and top executive told Reuters the vaccine maker had no plans to enforce its intellectual property rights should groups in Africa seek to make unauthorised versions of its shot.

For much of the pandemic, wealthy countries monopolised most of the global supplies of vaccines, leaving Africa massively under-vaccinated, with just one in 10 Africans immunised.

Poor domestic manufacturing capacity forces Africa to import 99 per cent of its vaccine needs. ― Reuters