Shot in the arm for SA as Patrick Soon-Shiong announces Covid-19 and cancer vaccines initiative
South African-American business tycoon Patrick Soon-Shiong has announced the launch of an SA Covid-19 and cancer vaccine initiative.
Soon-Shiong and President Cyril Ramaphosa revealed the ambitious initiative during a virtual press briefing on Thursday. It is a partnership between NantWorks LCC, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC), Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI), and the universities of Cape Town, Witwatersrand, Stellenbosch and KwaZulu-Natal. Soon-Shiong is a billionaire, bioscientist and media guru. He is renowned for inventing the drug Abraxane, known for its efficiency in treating lung, breast and pancreatic cancer.
The collaboration agreement will initiate the “transfer of biologic manufacturing technology for Covid-19 and cancer vaccines and next-generation cell-based immunotherapies. This will enable the rapid clinical development of next-generation vaccines for infectious diseases and cancer at centres of excellence across the country”. Soon-Shiong, founder and CEO of NantWorks, waxed lyrical about the initiative.
“It has been a dream of mine, since I left the country as a young physician, to bring state-of-the-art, 21st century medical care to SA and to enable the country to serve as a scientific hub for the continent,” he said.
“There is such an unmet need to treat life-threatening infectious diseases such as Aids, TB and now Covid-19. Of equal concern is the poor survival rate of patients suffering from cancer in SA and elsewhere in Africa. The astounding advances in science have enabled new paradigms of care involving activating the immune system and changing outcomes for these diseases. We are privileged to have the opportunity to bring 30 years of clinical, scientific and advanced biological know-how to the country and establish much-needed capacity and self-sufficiency.”
The partnership is set to expedite and expand manufacturing of biologics, immunotherapeutics and vaccines in SA through technology transfer and state-of-the-art advanced manufacturing facilities.
NantAfrica, a division of NantWorks created to co-ordinate the initiative, and the CSIR will implement state-of-the-art biologics manufacturing capacity to expedite transfer of Covid-19 and cancer vaccine biologics within the next three months and scale up capacity in and for Africa by 2022.
Meanwhile CERI, the SAMRC, and the universities of Stellenbosch and KwaZulu-Natal, “in tandem with the partnership, will enhance rapid genomic surveillance of and response to viral mutations occurring in Africa”. The launch of clinical centres of excellence for the treatment of cancers and infectious diseases such as Covid-19, HIV/Aids and TB, will be established through a collaboration with the SAMRC and the universities of Cape Town, Witwatersrand, Stellenbosch and KwaZulu-Natal, the media were told.
According to Soon-Shiong, “NantWorks has entered into agreements to invest in large-scale manufacturing facilities and a biologics manufacturing campus in the Western Cape and will begin transfer of technology, know-how and materials for DNA, RNA, adjuvant vaccine platforms and cell therapy in the next three months in partnership with the CSIR and SAMRC”.
Ramaphosa welcomed the investment. He also commended Soon-Shiong for deciding to bring the investment to SA, his birthplace.
“It was a homecoming moment when I met Dr Soon-Shiong and we saw an opportunity to strengthen our scientific and technological capacity; an opportunity to address the public health challenges experienced in SA and the continent and leapfrog to cutting edge technology,” said Ramaphosa. “This technology transfer, including manufacturing biologics, will reinforce vaccine equity sorely needed globally.”
Higher education minister Blade Nzimande shared Ramaphosa’s sentiments.
“I am grateful about the prospects that this collaboration with the CSIR will have for SA’s vaccine manufacturing capacity,” said Nzimande. “We appreciate the acknowledgment of the educational and scientific excellence and potential in the African continent that this agreement will bring, particularly to our training and research capability.”
CSIR CEO Dr Thulani Dlamini said the NantWorks agreement with the CSIR includes “collaboration on manufacturing processes of certain vaccine and biological components, building on the existing capacity at the CSIR”.
“The CSIR is about improving the quality of life of the people of SA,” said Dlamini.
“However, the affect of our work extends beyond the borders of SA. We achieve socioeconomic transformation through collaboratively innovating and localising technologies. The CSIR has a multidisciplinary capability that supports selected focus areas in the South African economy. Health and manufacturing are two such priority areas — areas that we believe are imperative to invest in to overcome the challenges of today and tomorrow.
“These are also areas in which our country has the potential to excel, and in which the CSIR has built deep capabilities and a solid track record. This collaboration presents us with a remarkable and value-adding opportunity to help ensure that our work in these areas has maximum affect.”
Prof Glenda Gray, president and CEO of SAMRC, said: “The SAMRC‘s mission is to fund and conduct research that changes the lives of South Africans. SAMRC has partnered with Dr Soon-Shiong in launching Covid-19 clinical trials in SA and looks forward to the development of next-generation vaccines and centres of excellence for patients with infectious diseases and cancer.”
Gray added: “This collaboration will increase resources and opportunities to do just that. Cancer and infectious disease contribute substantially to the burden of disease in our country. Finding innovative ways to curb mortality is critical to the health of our nation.”
The vice-chancellors of the various universities also welcomed the initiative.