It’s all systems go for next month’s BIO Africa Convention 2022

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Plans for the fifth BIO Africa Convention were unveiled last Friday when a panel of top local and international medical scientists and health specialists explored some of the top agenda issues.  The convention showcases Africa’s Biotechnology innovation in the health, agricultural and industrial sectors.  To be held under the theme: Africa Resilient: Life sciences innovation for achieving health and food security, the convention is scheduled to take place in KwaZulu-Natal from 27-31 August 2022. This international event will bring business leaders, entrepreneurs, researchers, regulatory authorities and policymakers under one roof.  

In addition, it provides an ideal platform to reach the broader biotech community of Africa for the commercialisation of local innovations. Biotechnology mainly impacts on food security and healthcare, with the development of drought-tolerant crops and vaccines for HIV and other viral agents. 

Panel of experts

Dr Lwazi Manzi, head of secretariat of the African Union Commission on Covid-19 introduced the event and chaired the panel session, which comprised Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) Director General, Dr Phil Mjwara; Dr Boitumelo Semete-Makokotlela, CEO of the South African Health Products Regulator (SAHPRA); International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) Director General Dr Lawrence Banks; and BIO Africa Convention Committee member, Next2People Dr Giorgio Roscigno.

Youth Innovation Challenge

The highlight of this year’s event is the launch of Youth Innovation Challenge, which has the aim of allowing learners from diverse backgrounds to conceptualise potential solutions for everyday personal, family, community, school and global issues. The innovation challenge encourages knowledge-building, the improvement of the understanding of sciences, building presentation skills and confidence in learners through the sharing of their research projects and investigations. It is open to learners from grade eight to grade 11, from South African high schools in all the country’s nine provinces.

DSI harnesses local expertise

In his presentation, Dr Mjwara spoke on the vaccine innovation strategy, saying the  objectives of the convention fits neatly into the DSI’s Decadal Plan, one of whose pillars is health and energy innovation. He said the DSI aims to harness existing expertise within the science community to promote local production and manufacture of vaccines. Currently, virtually the whole African continent relies disproportionately on imported vaccines, with very little capacity to produce their own.

Positioning Africa as investment destination

Dr Mjwara said the DSI also wants to build and strengthen local capacity that will go beyond the “fill and finish” component. He cited Afrigen Biologics, which leads a consortium comprising South African Medical Research Council and Biovac to produce a local vaccine by leveraging mRNA technology, as a perfect example of what can be achieved.  He said the DSI’s ultimate objective is to position Africa as a biotechnology destination. 

Advanced market commitment

Dr Mjwara also underscored the importance of advanced market commitment to support local innovation, saying the DSI is working closely with departments of Trade and Industry, Treasury and Health to encourage local buying and ensure security of supply. Other themes he touched on included global Innovation value chains and global value chains such as contract manufacturing. 

Strengthening local capacities

Dr Roscigno spoke on the need to rethink the North-South collaboration, saying the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated global health inequalities. He stressed the importance of ensuring there is universal access to health by impoverished communities. Dr Roscigno also spoke about the need to support African health and medical institutions so that they have the requisite capacity and resources to handle future health risks and pandemics. 

Importance of R&D

Dr Roscigno said he welcomed African heads of states’ commitments to procure 30% of locally produced vaccines. Earlier this year, South Africa-based Aspen Pharmacare nearly shut down its production of Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose Covid-19, because none of the other African countries placed orders for the vaccine. 

Protecting the interest and safety of patients

Dr Semete-Mokokotlela spoke about SAPHRA’s role in supporting local innovation and protecting the interest, rights and safety of patients. She said SAHPRA valued robust engagement with the public at the peak of Covid-19, adding this was the time most people came to understand the health authority’s role. She said their vigilance would be even more heightened in the context of the myriad of medical technologies and devices that enter the markets. She said the authority has a dedicated team that works around the clock to ensure that applications from vaccine manufacturers are consistently subjected to SAPHRA’s rigorous safety requirements. 

Fostering strong links with local innovators

Dr Semete-Mokokotlela said SAPHRA is collaborating with the local medical and academic fraternity, particularly in conducting clinical trials. In addition, SAPHRA is also working closely with emerging local innovators to ensure their products meet requirements before production. She said they have forged strong partnerships with sister organisations on the continent such as the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Promoting South-South collaboration

Dr Lawrence Banks’s input focused on South-South collaboration with the New England Lab in supporting the development of molecular diagnostics that are adaptable for low-resource areas. He said building hi-tech facilities and cutting-edge technologies in Africa must be accompanied by strengthening local capacity. In addition, the ICGEB will promote collaboration in the South by training and working with local health sectors to bolster their diagnostic platforms. 

Amgen and AfricaBio present webinar series on increasing genetic diversity in clinical trials in Africa

On 12 January 2021, the erstwhile chairperson of the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) on Covid-19 Professor Salim Abdool Karim issued the renowned “I let my country down” public apology, where he stated his regret for not encouraging South Africa to join the vaccine development race with its own vaccine candidate back in July of 2020. The public apology was also a direct response to the dominant public discourse of much criticism against the scientific community in South Africa, and Africa as a whole, for failing to design, test and manufacture what could be seen as a Covid-19 vaccine for Africans. 

Professor Salim Abdool Karim

While this criticism was seeded by the general mistrust among Africans of products, funders, and pharmaceutical companies from the Global North, and later promoted by the growing anti-vaccine sentiments of the day, it also highlighted the growing need for technological interventions designed in Africa, by Africans, for Africans. When vaccines did finally become available, Africa was not able to procure doses timeously because priority in vaccine distribution was given to countries in the Global North, including vaccine vials that were filled and packaged in South Africa. 

The delay in vaccine supply to Africa, refusal to waive intellectual property, and the exorbitant costs African countries had to pay for vaccine doses, including requirements for non-disclosure agreements, all served to exacerbate the mistrust in products seen as “Western” by Africans, and contribute to the bigger problem of vaccine hesitancy. In truth, we are yet to fully grasp the cost of vaccine inequity between the Global North and the Global South. 

However, we do know that Africa needs to strengthen its manufacturing of vaccines, as well as other medical products and devices. We have now seen multiple efforts by the World Health Organization and pharmaceutical companies to invest in the value chain of biotechnology and manufacturing in several African countries, including South Africa. A crucial element in this value chain is the conduct of clinical trials to test medical products and devices, and in this regard, South Africa is considered a global leader. 

The unprecedented speed with which Covid-19 trials were conducted, of which South Africa was a part, left much to be desired in terms of public trust in clinical trials, including in much of Africa. To achieve the goal of health innovation and biotechnology development in Africa, by Africans and for Africans, the work of rebuilding trust and confidence in clinical trials needs to resume in earnest, and the process should necessarily involve a series of engagements with a very broad and diverse collective of stakeholders. 

Such engagements will have to demonstrate the interconnectedness of healthcare and research, and the risks of under-representation in health innovation and research. The more we know biologically or otherwise about an individual or a group, the more precise our approach to their healthcare can be, also termed the practice of “precision medicine”. Therefore, the imperative to ensure diversity and inclusion in clinical trials goes to the very heart of the healthcare service delivery mandate in Africa.

On 24 May 2022, an association of biotechnology stakeholders in Africa, AfricaBio, held a webinar on the importance of diversity in clinical trials chaired by its president Dr Nhlanhla Msomi, which highlighted the under-representation of Africa in clinical trials. The webinar was attended by a range of stakeholders, and was co-hosted with Amgen, a bio-pharmaceutical company in the US. 

On 28 July, AfricaBio and Amgen will co-host a second webinar in the series, focusing on genomic diversity, precision medicine and the establishment of a biobank in Africa. According to the Framework for the implementation of Genomic Medicine for Public Health in Africa, published on 8 February 2021, the required infrastructure for Africa to reach global standards is vast, complex and expensive, but some of the pieces are already in place for some countries (including South Africa), albeit at a basic level through existing health systems and recently developed infrastructure. The report concludes by calling for national coordination of efforts through the broader ecosystem of government, health, science, education, policy, and industry partners, in order to tackle this enormous challenge of inclusion and representation of Africans — one bite at a time.

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