Bill Gates gives $40m for research, mRNA vaccines

Tuesday October 10 2023

Member of the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute Thomas Perlmann speaks to the media during the announcement of the winners of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm on October 2, 2023. PHOTO | AFP


Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has announced Ksh6 billion ($40 million) in funding to advance access to mRNA research and vaccine manufacturing technology in the latest fight against infectious diseases including tuberculosis, malaria and Lassa fever. 

The new funding is expected to support low- and middle-income countries' capacity to develop high-quality, lifesaving vaccines.

This comes after the foundation transferred the first prototype impact of mRNA technology to Afrigen in South Africa, a company it says meets the criteria that could produce these vaccines cheaply after which a dose could cost less than Ksh300 ($2.02).

While making the announcement on Monday at the 2023 Grand Challenges Annual Meeting in Dakar, Mr Gates said the move builds on lessons the foundation has learned from more than 20 years of working with vaccine manufacturers in poor countries and the opportunity to leverage recent scientific advances to develop low-cost, high-quality health tools that reach more people worldwide.

Read: Gates to spend $7b in Africa

“mRNA technology is considered a potential game-changer for a range of infectious diseases, including tuberculosis, malaria, and Lassa fever, which disproportionately affect people in LMICs. This new technology can significantly lower the costs of mRNA research and manufacturing and enable expanded access—helping to close critical gaps, “he said while drawing lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic.


“Global health research & development (R&D) deserves more funding. Less than five per cent of all R&D goes to the diseases that kill children the most by far and the best way we can celebrate 20 years of Grand Challenges Annual Meeting is to continue to focus on the world’s hardest problems with the most innovative solutions,” Mr Gates noted while citing malaria.

“mRNA vaccines have simpler research and manufacturing processes than traditional vaccines and so expanding access to this next-generation technology can help African countries like Senegal and South Africa gain autonomy to discover and develop low-cost, high-quality vaccines for diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis that are consistent with their health priorities.”

Quantoom’s modular mRNA technology addresses common bottlenecks in current mRNA research and manufacturing technologies, making it simpler and cheaper to use. For example, the cost of producing a vaccine could drop by more than 50 per cent with Quantoom’s platform compared to traditional mRNA technology.

It could also significantly reduce the need for deeply trained experts, which continues to be a barrier to vaccine production in Africa and elsewhere while maintaining or even increasing the quality of the product.

Read: Innovation the right dose for Africa’s health and poverty

The Institut Pasteur de Dakar (IPD) and Biovac, research institutes with vaccine manufacturing experience based in Senegal and South Africa will receive $5 million each to acquire the technology and will be able to use it to develop locally relevant vaccines.

“To further advance the technology and lower costs for commercialisation, the foundation also will provide $20 million to Quantoom Biosciences, ensuring LMICs can benefit from the next-generation mRNA health tools. The Gates Foundation will grant another $10 million to other LMIC vaccine manufacturers to be named,” said Gates. This new funding builds on the foundation’s previous $55 million investment in mRNA manufacturing technology.

In an interview with the Business Daily on the sidelines of the annual meeting, Mr Trevor Mundel who heads the foundation’s global health group which works on vaccines, new drugs, new therapeutics, data science, artificial intelligence and is mostly focused on Africa and South Asia, agrees with Mr Gates.

“When I got the chance to take this position that the Gates Foundation, which was sooner than I thought, you know, I jumped at the chance we have to address some of the big problems in health at the public health level especially in Africa, from HIV to malaria to tuberculosis and nutrition as well.

We saw tremendous injustice occur during the Covid-19 pandemic, we were very involved with vaccines and trying to set up Covax which didn't produce vaccines for Africa, ultimately,” he said.

“And we actually have transferred the first prototype impact of mRNA technology to Afrigen in South Africa, a unit that meets the criteria that could make these vaccines very cheaply. And those could be less than Ksh300 for a dose of the vaccine in the final form,” he said. 

Read: Africa dream of drug self-reliance given reality check

According to Dr Muhammad Ali Pate, Nigeria’s coordinating minister of health and social welfare and a global expert on vaccines, putting innovative mRNA technology in the hands of researchers and manufacturers in Africa and around the world, will help ensure more people benefit from next-generation vaccines.

“This collaboration is an encouraging step that will increase access to critical health technologies and help African countries develop vaccines that meet the needs of their people.”

“Expanding our capacity to discover and manufacture affordable mRNA vaccines in Africa is an important and necessary step towards vaccine self-reliance in the region," said Dr Amadou Sall, CEO of IPD.