New era of health science for Africa as NantSA launches vaccine-manufacturing campus

Africa hopes to become self-reliant on vaccines after the launch of a state-of-the-art manufacturing campus on Wednesday, a first for the continent.

“Africa stands ready to enter a new age of medical science,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said, speaking at the official launch of NantSA’s manufacturing campus at Brackengate, Cape Town. NantSA is a division of US-based multinational conglomerate NantWorks.

“Today is a demonstration on how we move forward to become self-reliant as a continent,” Ramaphosa told attendees of the event, adding that, through becoming self-sufficient “colonial chains are being broken”. The event also included the launch of the Africa’s Access to Advanced Healthcare (AAAH) Coalition.

NantSA and the AAAH Coalition want to accelerate the production of pharmaceuticals, biologics and vaccines on the continent. 

In September, NantSA entered into an agreement with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the South African Medical Research Council for the transfer of manufacturing technology for Covid-19 and cancer vaccines and next-generation, cell-based immunotherapies. 

Working with universities and healthcare facilities countrywide, the partnership expects to accelerate the development of next-generation vaccines for infectious diseases across Africa. These vaccines include treatment for cancer, Covid-19, tuberculosis and HIV.  

NantAfrica, NantSA, and Nant Botswana, established by South African-born NantWorks founder Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong, want to manufacture a billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines in South Africa by 2025.  

During Wednesday’s launch, Soon-Shiong said the facility “moves at speed” and is  expected to develop a Covid-19 vaccine in the next year. 

“Unless we have a vaccine to stop transmission [of the virus], we will not stop this pandemic,” he said, adding that the Cape Town facility would develop second-generation vaccines. Vaccines manufactured at NantSA will be developed to kill infected cells and prevent transmissions of Covid-19, as opposed to current vaccines, which focus only on spike proteins.

Ramaphosa said the state-of-the-art vaccine-making campus was part of a far broader initiative to “propel Africa into a new era of health science”.

“It is within the walls of this facility, through the networks that are being built, through the advanced skills that are being developed, and through the other initiatives across our continent, that our vision for vaccine, diagnostics and drug manufacturing in Africa will steadily take form … Africa should no longer be last in line to access vaccines against pandemics,” he said.

Ramaphosa noted that more than 500-million vaccine doses had been secured for the continent, but these represented only about half of those Africa needed to vaccinate 900-million people and achieve the 70% target set by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Most African countries did not manage to reach WHO’s target of vaccinating 40% of their populations against Covid-19 by the end of December. At the beginning of 2022, only about 9% of eligible people on the continent were fully vaccinated.

“We need more vaccine doses, we need better therapeutics, and we need to protect the people of our continent against future variants and future pandemics,” said Ramaphosa. 

Western Cape Premier Alan Winde said the new facility was great news for the province’s economy, which he said already had a growing health technology sector “and is well-positioned to grow over the next decade”.

He also welcomed the employment opportunities such a facility would offer Cape Town. 

According to Soon-Shiong, the vaccine manufacturing initiative hopes to employ 400 to 600 people.

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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