South Africa’s vaccine manufacturing capacity has received a major boost with an R281 million grant from the European Union (EU) and the European Investment Bank (EIB). 

The funds will support the expansion of Biovac, Southern Africa’s only human vaccine manufacturer and Afrigen Biologics, a biotechnology company.

“This is about working horizontally; this is about being able to holistically look at how you can tackle a health crisis”, says European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides, speaking at a recent tour of the Biovac and Afrigen facilities. 

In June 2021, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced it had selected a South African consortium to run an mRNA technology transfer hub, serving all low- and middle-income countries. No additional hubs are planned.

Within this consortium, AfriGen Biologics establishes mRNA vaccine production technology, the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) provides the research, and The Biovac Institute is the first manufacturing ‘spoke’.

Biovac’s CEO, Morena Makhoana, says the institute currently has three major projects from a production perspective, which include the COVID-19 vaccine with Pfizer and two other projects related to children’s vaccines. One is a 6-in-one vaccine called Hexaxim, (a vaccine for infectious diseases), in partnership with Sanofi. 

“It’s important that companies like Biovac exist. We want more Biovac’s out there. I think a reminder is what happened with COVID.  The world forgot about Africa, and we ended up being the last to get vaccines on the continent.  If we had had the capability on the continent, we could have developed our own products and made them accessible,” says Makhoana.

Inside Biovac’s facility at the mNRA tech transfer hub (Photo: Faith Mutizira)

Petro Terblanche, Managing Director at Afrigen, says the hub will be beneficial both for South Africa and Africa’s health systems. 

“This platform allows us to have a rapid response platform. mRNA platforms have unique abilities to fast track vaccine development and also to screen for vaccines, so this facility here is the first facility on the continent that will have the ability to design, develop and produce the vaccine for clinical trials, and for supply for other countries.”

Increasing access to vaccines  

Biovac has been importing and distributing vaccines since 2003. Working with the Department of Health, it supplies over 15 million doses throughout all of South Africa‘s provinces. Among these are vaccines for measles, pneumonia, hepatitis B, diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (whooping cough). 

“More recently, we added Covid -19 vaccines to the list. We’re even involved in the distribution. And we make sure the products get to where they need to in the condition it needs to be in,” he says. 

Vaccine accessibility and pandemic ready

Terblanche says that if there is an outbreak of another pandemic, the facility could in a very short period of time, even months, be able to produce a vaccine to combat the pandemic with partnerships. 

However, mRNA technology will not be suitable for all vaccines. “We can’t see this as the saviour of the world.  But I think it will be a huge contribution to improve vaccines, to develop new vaccines for neglected diseases and to have a fast pandemic response preparedness”, she says.

“The hub’s capacity, once fully licensed, will be 3 million vials or about  70 million doses. There are no plans to expand that because we believe this capacity is sufficient for neglected diseases.”

Building local skills is essential

Terblanche says Afrigen provides internships for budding scientists and engineers. 

Makhoana is hopeful the funding will allow them to retain South African scientists. “We have great universities in the country, and it is always a shame when you find that scientists cannot find meaningful work and we end up losing them to the US or to Europe. We need to create a work environment where our scientists can grow, contribute, learn and feel happy and are fairly remunerated for what they do”, he says. 

Terblanche believes conditions in the country also contribute to scientists leaving the country. 

“People will leave if there’s instability, no economic growth, and an energy crisis. And we do not have control over those things,” she says.

Over the past year, Biovac has created over 100 new jobs. “We used to have approximately 350 employees, which has grown over the past year. We are trying our best to retain scientists”, Makhoana says.  – Health-e News