South Africa is to become the guinea pig for the production and testing of a controversial HIV/Aids vaccine that will be grown in genetically modified (GM) plants.
But local environmental activists have warned they will fight the project, for which the European Union has granted 12-million euro (about R80-million) over five years.
The first field trial of the GM vaccine is likely to be carried out in South Africa because there are fears that crops might be vandalised in the United Kingdom, Britain’s Independent newspaper reported this week.
The Independent said: “Concerns about direct action by environmentalists opposed to GM crops has led scientists behind the project to collaborate with a South African research institute which has offered to grow the first crop there.”
The institute in question is the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria. The CSIR confirmed it would conduct research on the plant vaccine to the value of â,¬75 000 (about R560 000) this year.
The business area manager for plant biotechnology at the CSIR, Blessed Okole, described the initiative as a “humanitarian” project with the “primary aim of providing medicines for poor countries”.
However, local activists are not so enthralled. The coordinator of the African Centre for Biosafety, Mariam Mayet, said that if the European scientists believed trials in South Africa would go unopposed “they are in for a real shock”.
“Relocating such a project to South Africa because activists in Europe will destroy their crops smacks of environmental racism. We will fight them all the way.”
Muffy Koch, a biosafety expert advising the government on the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), said that for the first time this year GMO trials were being conducted in secret in South Africa , because local activists had made subtle threats about “night harvesting”.
The CSIR does not require government approval to take part in the project, but has applied for additional funding from the Department of Science and Technology.
The department provided financial support for a visit last year by Professor Paul Christou, a leading member of the Pharma-Planta consortium, to explore European collaboration with South Africa.
“The CSIR’s primary role and tasks relate to the genetic transformation of maize and tobacco with the experimental vaccines — and growing the transgenic plants in a contained environment to produce seeds that will be used for downstream processing,” said Okole.
European scientists expect to start human trials on the vaccine in the next five years. The technology, called “biopharming”, involves the genetic engineering of plants to produce pharmaceutical proteins and chemicals that they do not produce naturally.
The Pharma-Planta consortium will develop the concept from plant modification through to clinical trials with the aim of producing vaccines and remedies for major diseases including Aids, rabies, diabetes and tuberculosis.
Biosafety coordinator Philip Dale, of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, England, said several different production systems were under consideration, including the use of maize and tobacco. A final decision on the plant host would not be made until a year into the project.
“We will also carefully consider where to base the production sites. We already have a number of sites in mind, both in Europe and South Africa,” Dale said.
The GM crops are to have their genes spliced with genetic material from disease-causing viruses and bacteria to make prototype vaccines. By purifying the proteins, known as antigens, from the harvested crop scientists hope to mass produce vaccines at a fraction of the current cost.
The project’s scientific coordinator, Julian Ma, of St George’s Hospital Medical School in London, said it would take about two years to develop the technique before the first crop was grown in 2006.
The administrative coordinator, Professor Rainer Fischer, added: “There is a desperate need to find ways to produce modern medicines in sufficient quantities and at a cost that will make them available to everyone. We believe using plants to make pharmaceuticals could make a significant contribution.”
Ma said, “The cost of developing plant-derived products could be 10 to 100 times lower than conventional production.”
Andrew Tanyton, spokesperson for the Safe Food Coalition, a bitter opponent of GMOs in South Africa, dismissed claims that a desire to reduce costs lay behind the use of plants to produce vaccines.
“These medicines will be patented. When they come on the market there will be no competition, so prices will be as high. There will be no benefits for the consumer,” he said.
“You don’t need to create GM crops; you can develop medicines using GM technology by modifying bacteria in laboratories. There is no need to release these crops into the environment.”
Taynton added that GM crops have been rejected in Europe. “To keep the biotechnology industry afloat they are targeting countries with very lax biotechnology legislation.”
A major cause for concern over the new technology is the fact that a United States company, Epicyte, holds a key patent on the production of antibodies in plants. “Any benefits must genuinely reach those that need them, rather than simply lining the pockets of the biotech and pharmaceutical industry,” said Clare Oxborrow, a GM campaigner for Friends of the Earth.
“We believe food crops should not be used to grow these vaccines because of the risk of contamination. Food crops in the US have already been destroyed because of contamination by experimental ‘pharm’ crops,” Oxborrow said.
Okole said the executive council of the GMO Act would have to be convinced that there are no health or environmental risks, and that the trials will be managed to prevent any unforeseen loss of material.