Africa needs to boost vaccine manufacturing to combat future pandemics — President Ramaphosa

31 May 2021 - 07:14
A Covid-19 vaccine product in the form of a tablet will not have to be stored at the low temperatures required by some injectable vaccines. Stock photo.
A Covid-19 vaccine product in the form of a tablet will not have to be stored at the low temperatures required by some injectable vaccines. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/Belcho Nock

Africa needs to boost its own vaccine manufacturing capability to combat future pandemics, President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Sunday when he announced the country was moving to adjusted level 2 of the lockdown.

He said over the past seven days, there had been a daily average of 3,745 new Covid-19 infections. This is an increase of 31% on the previous week, and an increase of 66% on the week before.

“Infections are going up and we must do everything in our power to mitigate this. We once again have to remind South Africans to be vigilant and to protect themselves and each other.”

During his address to the nation on Sunday, Ramaphosa asserted that rich countries had hoarded vaccine supplies, leaving poor countries with a shortage of desperately needed Covid-19 vaccines.

Only 2% of Africa’s has population has received Covid-19 jabs while richer countries, including the UK, near the end of their first vaccination programmes.

“The only answer is that Africa must boost its own manufacturing processes,” the president said.

While SA heavyweight pharmaceutical firm Aspen is filling and finishing vials of Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot Covid-19 vaccine at its plant in Gqeberha, it is not manufacturing the vaccine in SA.

In March, Cape Town-based pharmaceutical manufacturer Biovac announced it had formed a partnership with vaccine developer ImmunityBio to manufacture the US firm’s candidate vaccine.

The hAd5 T-cell SARS-CoV-2 vaccine is undergoing parallel first phase clinical trials in the US and at the Wellcome Centre for Infectious Diseases Research in Africa (CIDRI-Africa) in Khayelitsha.

The new vaccine is designed to work in two ways, first by triggering an immune response and also by killing the coronavirus.

“The best way to do it is to kill the [viral] cells,” Biovac CEO  Dr Morena Makhoana told Sunday Times Daily at the time.

However, as building a manufacturing facility from scratch would take two to three years, the ImmunityBio vaccine is likely to be manufactured overseas when it is ready for production.

Given the rigorous testing process candidate vaccines have to go through, the vaccine is also not likely to be ready for distribution before early next year.

Makhoana said the two firms had been in talks since July last year to trash out the details for the partnership, during which SA-born ImmunityBio MD Patrick Soon-Shiong had high-level discussions with SA’s health ministry

“We had to ensure it was not just a bilateral agreement but also that government was on board,” he said.

The partnership is a shot in the arm for Biovac, which was established in 2003 to revive human vaccine production in southern Africa.

Makhoana hoped the partnership would help push SA into the spotlight as a vaccine manufacturer.

In November, Biovac was cleared to begin formulating Prevnar 13, a childhood anti-pneumonia vaccine, on behalf of US-based pharma giant Pfizer. The vaccine contained 13 elements which needed to be blended.

Africa does not have any vaccine manufacturing capability.

Setting up vaccine plants to manufacture the active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) was expensive, while there is a reluctance from pharmaceutical companies to part with their intellectual property.

Ramaphosa said he continued to support the “Trips waiver” which proposes to suspend intellectual property protections for such products as Covid-19 vaccines while the pandemic continues.

The waiver was proposed by SA and India in October as a way of unlocking the shortage of vaccines in the developing world.

While many countries such as the US, UK and Japan were initially opposed to the idea, the US recently indicated its support for the waiver and for further negotiations to temporarily suspend the intellectual property rights on vaccines.

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