Friday, 19 March 2021

Cape Town: Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister, Dr Blade Nzimande, says South Africa is in talks to sign a ground-breaking vaccine production contract with ImmunityBio, a US-based firm owned by a South African-born billionaire.

The Minister said this on the sidelines of Deputy President David Mabuza’s visit to the Biovac Institute in Pinelands in Cape Town on Thursday.

“We are expecting that by the end of next month, we will be signing a contract with a company called ImmunityBio, which is owned by an ex-South African,” said the Deputy President.

Born in Port Elizabeth, Patrick Soon Shiong obtained his qualification as a medical doctor from the University of Witwatersrand at the age of 23 before moving to the United States at the height of apartheid.

Shiong, who was born in South Africa to Chinese immigrant parents, later became a board-certified surgeon graduating from the University of California in 1984.

In his later years, Sooh Shiong has been involved in research and development and is known for inventing Abraxane, which became a ground-breaking drug for its efficacy in the treatment of pancreatic cancer.

“He has actually been in the industry of manufacturing products to treat cancer and so on but … he is now moving into the production of a new vaccine for COVID-19. He is doing the first phase of the test[s]. He is very keen now. We are having discussions with him to invest in South Africa,” he said.

ImmunityBio is currently conducting clinical trials with an aim to produce a COVID-19 vaccine in Khayelitsha in the Western Cape. “We are participating by virtue of having this clinical trial in Khayelitsha.”

Meanwhile, after touring and receiving a briefing about the Biovac facility, the Deputy President said processes were afoot to move Biovac into a space where it will begin to fulfil the state’s intention to produce and manufacture vaccines locally.

“We are pleased to say that there are already steps that have been taken in the process.”

He said they currently formulate vaccines and then fill the small vials.

“The only missing link that we must work on is to manufacture the mix itself. We want to produce our own vaccines here. Yes, we are producing but we are just doing the formulation and the filling. We want to do the last step now.”

Nzimande said the Biovac Institute is the only facility of its kind in the whole of the African continent in terms of its capacity.

“It started way back in 2003 just doing packaging. Vaccines would be imported here, finished and just packaged, but it has been moving up the value chain.

“What it is doing now is actually filling and finishing. But the plan is to move even higher up the value chain so that we are able to produce, invest… in our own research and development so that we can produce and manufacture our own vaccines, hopefully starting with COVID-19 but also in developing other vaccines.”

He said the development with regards to signing a contract with ImmunityBio was good news for research and development.

“That is very good news … from the standpoint of the President’s campaign for more investment in South Africa, but much more importantly, that we begin to make a big difference in terms of taking this facility to higher levels to be able to move up the value chain to produce much more vaccines than we are doing right now.”