An employee at Afrigen works in a laboratory in Cape Town.RODGER BOSCH/AFP via Getty Images

The coronavirus is a rapidly developing news story, so some of the content in this article might be out of date. Check out our most recent coverage of the coronavirus crisis, and subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.

Scientists in Cape Town, South Africa, are “assembling and calibrating the equipment needed to reverse engineer a coronavirus vaccine that has yet to reach South Africa and most of the world’s poorest people,” the Associated Press reported Sunday. 

Last weekend, the New York Times reported that Moderna was profiting by sending most of its vaccines to wealthy countries and that “some poorer countries are paying more and waiting longer for the company’s vaccine than the wealthy—if they have access at all”— something my colleague Edwin Rios called “shameful and dangerous.” 

Earlier this year, Moderna said it would expand its vaccine distribution to poor countries. But as we get closer to the end of 2021, most poor countries still don’t have access to Moderna’s shot, all while the a Massachusetts-based company is expected to make around $20 billion in revenue this year. 

The move to reverse engineer the Moderna vaccine has backing from the World Health Organization, which coordinates vaccine research, training and production in South Africa, the AP reported. It is a last-resort effort to get vaccines to poor countries in Africa. 

“We are doing this for Africa at this moment, and that drives us,” said Emile Hendricks, a 22-year-old biotechnologist for Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, the company trying to reproduce the Moderna shot. “We can no longer rely on these big superpowers to come in and save us.”

Some experts see reverse engineering—recreating vaccines from fragments of publicly available information—as one of the few remaining ways to redress the power imbalances of the pandemic. Only 0.7% of vaccines have gone to low-income countries so far, while nearly half have gone to wealthy countries, according to an analysis by the People’s Vaccine Alliance.

Details around potential conflict with intellectual property are still “murky” in part because the WHO has never directly taken part in reverse engineering a novel vaccine. But WHO officials said the urgency of the pandemic calls for it. 

The team in South Africa is hoping to have a version of the Moderna vaccine tested within a year, and in production for commercial distribution soon after. 

FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaire owners wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2021 demands.

payment methods

FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaire owners wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2021 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate