The Citizen (Gauteng)

Barriers to roll-out

COVID-19: RAMAPHOSA’S VACCINE MANUFACTUR­ING PLANS NOT FEASIBLE

- Simnikiwe Hlatshanen­i – simnikiweh@citizen.co.za

State’s ambition to see local production of doses relies on intellectu­al property rights waiver.

South Africa is still in its infancy when it comes to being able to develop and manufactur­e vaccines, despite leading the charge on the continent. The government’s ambitions to see large-scale local production of vaccines relies heavily on a proposed agreement among developers to waive intellectu­al property rights for Covid-19 vaccines and medicines in poor countries.

In his weekly statement, President Cyril Ramaphosa says South Africa plans to rapidly scale up local production of its Covid-19 vaccines if the proposal supported by South Africa, India and the US is accepted at the World Trade Organisati­on.

According to Jeff Dorfman, associate professor of the Division of Medical Virology at Stellenbos­ch University, South Africa could not have been ready to produce vaccines in meaningful quantities in the time it has had.

“This capacity was not pushed early enough for us to be in the game already,” he said.

Local vaccine manufactur­ers and distributo­r Biovac announced a partnershi­p earlier this year to produce a vaccine made by life sciences company ImmunityBi­o that is still in the early stages of testing.

Hope for South Africa entering the global vaccine manufactur­ing sector in earnest also lies in the multibilli­on-rand agreement that will see Aspen Pharmacare produce more than 300 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine over the next three years from the former’s specialise­d plant in Gqeberha, Eastern Cape.

But as Ndlovu Care Group chief executive Dr Hugo Tempelman points out, this activity will only deal with the packaging of the product. He suggests venturing into full scale production may be seen as too risky an investment in South Africa.

According to the World Health Organisati­on, South Africa is one of only five countries on the continent with local vaccine production capacity. Upstream production on the continent is low and most local companies’ activities are limited to packaging the finished product.

Prof Robert Bragg of the University of the Free State’s school of Microbial Biochemica­l and Food Biotechnol­ogy, suggests South Africa does have some capacity for producing vaccines as has been demonstrat­ed in the local production of paediatric vaccines, but a lack of funding in the research and developmen­t stage is an important hindrance.

Bragg is part of a research group that has a patented yeast-based expression system. In March 2020, the team had already designed the genes for expression of the Covid-19 virus in their expression system.

“The design of the genes for SARS-CoV-2 was based on the work we did with the avian coronaviru­s. We attempted to publish this work in March 2020, but one of the reviewers requested that we first express the genes before we could publish. Due to a lack of funding we could not move forward to the expression of these genes. We have only been able to scrape some funding together to start on this work this year.” According to Bragg, the university also has a project on the expression of the South African variant of SARS-CoV-2 and the Wuhan strain in order to first show proof of concept so it can move forward on its discussion­s with a local vaccine manufactur­er.

As soon as proof of concept has been demonstrat­ed with the two strains being researched, Bragg says it would be relatively easy to roll out the technology for other variant SARSCoV-2 viruses.

Tempelman says: “What is hampering developmen­t now is the tendering system. You need the infrastruc­ture and the knowledge to develop vaccines. Knowledge is there, but there is no infrastruc­ture.”

Criticism of South Africa’s lack of investment in vaccine developmen­t and manufactur­ing may not take into account how much South Africa already contribute­s to the global vaccine race.

Dr Mmboneni Muofhe, deputy director-general of technology innovation at the department of science and innovation, suggests that South Africa’s role in the developmen­t of vaccines may be underestim­ated, because many of the finished products arriving in SA have been developed with the help of South Africa’s leading scientists during various stages of the process.

You need infrastruc­ture and knowledge to develop vaccines

 ?? Picture: AFP ?? JAB UP. A health worker prepares to inoculate a man with a dose of the Chinese-made Sinopharm Covid-19 coronaviru­s vaccine in Colombo yesterday.
Picture: AFP JAB UP. A health worker prepares to inoculate a man with a dose of the Chinese-made Sinopharm Covid-19 coronaviru­s vaccine in Colombo yesterday.

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