A South African-born American biotech medical entrepreneur has announced a R3 billion investment towards vaccine development in South Africa.
Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong, who was born in Gqeberha and studied at Wits Medical School in the 1970s, is the founder of Nantworks, a network of healthcare, biotech and artificial intelligence start-ups based in California in the US.
He made this investment announcement during a webinar hosted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) this week.
“We as an organisation, we’ll commit an initial R3 billion to catalyse this activity in SA and then work with Africa so that the capacity and most importantly second-generation vaccinology, second generation cell therapy, second generation delivery systems could be enabled. I also need to say that beyond COVID-19, we need worry about diseases like schistosomiasis; tropical diseases have been neglected because they’re African. Cancer like burkitt’s lymphoma, HIV and one of the most urgent things is this non-infectious epidemic called cancer, the survival rates in Africa is terrible so with that, I just want to announce is that our goal and our commitment is to come back to SA and transfer this kind of technology,” Soon-Shiong says.
Dr Soon-Shiong’s other company, ImmunityBio, is reportedly already conducting vaccine trials in South Africa in a partnership with local vaccine producer BioVac.
He says he has been in talks with the government, Professor Tulio de Oliveira of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform as well as Dr Glenda Gray of the SA Medical Research Council.
Soon-Shiong says he believes South Africa has the science, human capital and capacity.
“South Africa has led the way in terms of understanding the danger of these variants. I don’t think the world yet recognises that these current variants, especially the variant in India and started initially the variant in South Africa, has what we call conformational change, antibodies are going to be less effective.
What is really needed is second generation vaccines but there’s also need for broad platforms, whether it be the viral vector platform, RNA platform, cell therapy platform, antibody platform, sub-unit platforms, audients. My my commitment and goal are to bring these platforms into Africa. When we say Africa can, Africa will, already in SA we will have and do have companies like BioVac, companies like Aspen, while SA had not in its own right built a vaccine since 2001, that will change,” he adds.
Health Minister, Zweli Mkhize, has encouraged South Africans to continue rallying behind government’s efforts to push for a waiver on some intellectual property rights for vaccines and medicines at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
Speaking during the virtual Health Budget Debate, Mkhize says the country is working on developments to produce COVID-19 vaccines.
Mkhize says there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“I wish to close this address by inspiring confidence in our ability to build local manufacturing and the government has undertaken some key collaborative initiatives and investments to ensure that SA can independently meet its own biotech needs. These include attracting a BRICS vaccine research and development centre and using the newly acquired consensus around the issue of IP waivers that SA must become the manufacturing hub for vaccines and other pharmaceutical patents and supporting our programmes such as BioVac,” he adds.
On Wednesday, Deputy President David Mabuza said the country is forging ahead with plans to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines locally.
The South African government’s stance is in line with that of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), which hopes to see Africa produce up to 60% of vaccines used on the continent by 2040.
Currently, the continent imports 99% of all vaccines, while managing to manufacture only 1%.
Vaccine production and access in Africa: