Dr Lwazi Manzi makes a point at the BIO Africa media launch. Seated are Dr Phil Mjwara, Dr Siyabulela Ntutela, Dr Boitumelo Semete and Dr Vuyisele Phehane.
AU aims to position Africa as a global biotech investment destination
Africa should invest more into its vaccine manufacturing capabilities and innovations so that it can respond timeously to outbreaks of future pandemics. This was a key point made at the media launch of the 6th edition of the annual BIO Africa Convention on Tuesday, at the Bigen Innovation Hub in Pretoria.
The theme for this year’s convention is: “Re-imagining Biotechnology Innovation for Africa’s Development and Security”. It will be held from 1-6 September 2023 at the Durban International Convention Centre, also known as Inkosi Albert Luthuli ICC, in KwaZulu-Natal.
AU’s new public health order
A panel discussion at the launch was directed by Dr Lwazi Manzi, head of secretariat of the African Union Commission on Covid-19. She said manufacturing is one of the five pillars of the new public health order that was fully endorsed by the AU’s heads of state in 2021. She added that the AU has launched a partnership for African vaccine manufacturing, with a target of producing 60% of the continent’s vaccines by 2040.
Members of the panel included:
-Dr Siyabulela Ntutela, Executive Vice-President: BIO Africa and Strategic Partnerships;
-Dr Phil Mjwara, Director-General of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI);
-Dr Boitumelo Semete, Chief Executive Officer of South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA);
-Dr George Painter, Director, Emory Institute of Drug Development (Emory University);
-Dr Giorgio Roscigno, Chairperson of Next2people;
-Dr Chris Smith, Cambridge University (The Naked Scientist);
-Dr Vuyisile Phehane, Executive: Bio-Economy, Technology Innovation Agency (TIA).
Highlights of the programme
Dr Ntutela outlined the key focus areas for the convention. He said that the primary objective is to get Africa talking about biotech developments and to address challenges ranging from food security and medicine to vaccine manufacturing. BIO Africa will, in partnership with Emory University, offer courses from Friday to Sunday to SMMEs and start-ups on topics such as technology transfer and IP training. They will host another “start-up stadium” following its success last year, where about 50 SMMEs from across the continent showcased their innovations.
Dr Mjwara said the DSI supports the BIO Africa Convention because it is their responsibility to invest in new technologies and science capabilities. He said they are working with the Department of Agriculture to examine how they can harness biotechnology to modernise the sector. In June 2021 South Africa was announced as a host country for the mRNA technology transfer hub in Africa. It trains staff on the technology required to produce vaccines.
South Africa has also set up a consortium South Africa has also set up a consortium comprising Afrigen, the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), BioVac and various universities. Afrigen is mandated to be the vaccine production technology company, SAMRC provides research funding and manages clinical trials while BioVac serves as a manufacturing spoke and trains staff in identified companies.
A similar consortium comprising universities and science councils that have capabilities in virus-like particle platforms has also been set up. Dr Mjwara said in the next five years or so they should be in a position to have at least 50% of vaccines manufactured in South Africa. He said they are also working closely with the National Research Foundation to look at competencies that they have, with a view to establishing a centre for pandemics preparedness.
Strong regulatory environment
Dr Semete highlighted the need for a strong regulatory environment. She said in the current context regulators have to wear multiple hats instead of just focusing on policing and enforcement. She said one of the critical issues for SAHPRA is to ensure it communicates very early on what the route map is so that entrepreneurs and the industry are clear on that.
She said that Africa has five regulators that have been benchmarked as having reached maturity level. This means they have the right systems in place to ensure their products are safe, of good quality and effective. These regulators have the capability and mechanisms to rely on one another. SAHPRA has recently signed an MoU with the Egyptian health regulatory authority.
Helping on-board technology
Dr Painter spoke about how he helped to enable the continent to on-board the technology required for its security. He said he undertook some of the important steps included, among others, integration of all the capabilities into a functional entity that can respond quickly to emerging diseases and setting up a good surveillance network across the continent.
Dr Roscigno gave an update on the progress made in combating the spread of tuberculosis and in developing new technologies to treat it. He said progress has been made but that Covid-19 had slowed down the global advances made in the past three years.
Making science accessible
Dr Smith said communication is at the heart of science education, and that a promising young South African researcher had been trained for two months on how to become a good communicator. The idea is for her to come back to her communities and encourage other young people to embrace the sciences.
Prioritising Africa as a market
Dr Phehane said the role of TIA is to identify owners of innovative ideas and fund them, adding they also de-risk innovations. He said they also help entrepreneurs to make their innovations appeal to global markets. He hailed the DSI’s Decadal Plan, saying it was critical in informing their strategy. They also ensure they encourage innovations that recognise the end-users, so that there is an easy uptake, and that Africa has been targeted as the main market for the TIA’s innovative products.
— Thabo Mohlala
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