The Citizen (Gauteng)
Barriers to roll-out
COVID-19: RAMAPHOSA’S VACCINE MANUFACTURING PLANS NOT FEASIBLE
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