SA not quite ready to produce its own COVID-19 vaccines: Experts

SA not quite ready to produce its own COVID-19 vaccines: ExpertsOfficials say they understand the public's frustration with the slow pace of vaccinations. (RF Studio/Pexels)

South African scientists and health experts say it is going to take years before the country will be able to manufacture its own COVID-19 vaccines.

Read More

They say there is simply not enough capacity currently, to produce vaccines locally. The discussion on the local production of vaccines, was hosted by the South African Health Technologies Advocacy Coalition (SAHTAC) last week, in a webinar themed South Africa’s readiness to develop and manufacture vaccines at large scale.

Glaudina Loots, Director of Health Innovation at the Department of Science and Technology, told the webinar the country will only begin producing its own vaccines after several years. One of the challenges for local manufacturing is that South Africa cannot produce the active ingredients for vaccines, it will have to import them. The other challenge is that building capacity for full scale vaccine production takes time.

“What we can look at right now is just to expand the capacity to do the full finishing of the vaccines, we are still dependent on bringing in the active components into South Africa. In three years’, time we will be able to make the vaccines ourselves but unfortunately we do not have [the capacity] at the moment. We are working on it,” she said.

Building capacity for vaccine manufacturing

Loots also highlighted that building capacity for vaccine manufacturing requires long-term investment and solid partnerships between the public and private sectors. “So, what we have done already, long before COVID-19 is to start looking out at the value chain for vaccine manufacturing and we have identified where we have the capabilities in South Africa,” she said.

South Africa does, however have a facility that was set up to oversee vaccine manufacturing. The Biovac Institute is a public-private partnership between the government and a consortium of healthcare companies. Loots believes that Biovac and other academic research facilities hold the country in good stead in its attempts to build capacity for local vaccine production.

“We have excellent clinical trial infrastructure and expertise to manage vaccine trials and we do provide funding for research on how to develop and manufacture processes for vaccines at the University of Cape Town and Wits University. The government has invested in Biovac and the government controls 47,5% of the shares. We do (also)have the experts, but the main thing is how can we bring them together, so we need to identify the various pockets that we have got, how to build them out into a fully fledged vaccine company,” she said.

South Africa will also have to invest in advanced technologies that will allow for the manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines. “Very importantly we do not have an mRNA technology in South Africa. We are in negotiations for technology transfer of mRNA to South Africa. Unfortunately, this will still take a year or two in order to establish that. So, in order to take this forward the government is in the process of forming partnerships with industry players,” added Loots.

Importance of manufacturing vaccines locally 

Biovac Chief Executive Officer, Dr Morena Makhoana stressed the importance of having the capability to manufacture vaccines in the country.

“Even when universities develop vaccines at the moment, they need to take them overseas for clinical trial manufacture. We do need to have capability in the country. But that is something which Biovac wants to do,” said Makhoana.

He added that for sustainable vaccine manufacturing “we need to have predictable demand and policies which are supportive of localisation. We do need to have a local ecosystem. Fortunately, South Africa has a very good skills base”. – Health-e News