Leveraging agricultural R&D to boost SA’s vaccine production capacity: an unlikely saviour
By Thulasizwe Mkhabela
DESPITE significant medical progress over the last centuries, infectious diseases such as influenza and malaria still represent significant threats to modern societies. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is a case in point.
The spread of a virus can also have important economic implications. These economic implications manifest themselves through aspects such as loss of income, for example, reductions in the size of the labour force and productivity, increase in absenteeism and because of curtailment measures imposed on individuals and societies aimed at interruption, the transmission and spread of the pandemic, which, invariably disrupt economic activity.
The successful development of vaccines against the coronavirus and subsequent endorsement of vaccine roll-outs the world over has highlighted the importance of each country developing its own vaccine production capacity in order to reduce reliance on external sources of vaccine in times of need.
There is an acute shortage of coronavirus vaccines resulting in unacceptable delays in making the vaccines available to the masses. South Africa should be producing its own vaccines against the coronavirus given that it has the wherewithal to do so.
The agricultural sector in South Africa can provide valuable lessons in vaccine development and production. Thus, South Africa should look no further than the agricultural sector to boost its ability to produce its own vaccines.
The South African agricultural research and development (R&D) sector has the prerequisite technical know-how and experience in vaccine development and production. The Agricultural Research Council (ARC), together with Onderstepoort Biological Products (OBP), have unparalleled – not even in the health sector – capacity and experience to develop and produce vaccines, albeit animal health vaccines.
The fact that these two public institutions are in the agricultural R&D sector should not detract from the opportunities they offer for domesticating vaccine production, even against the coronavirus. The process of vaccine development and production is a highly specialised field of research and similar whether the vaccine in question is for animal or human usage.
Given that around 60 percent of emerging infectious diseases reported globally are zoonoses (ie naturally transmitted diseases between people and vertebrate animals), virus outbreaks may result in significant costs to a country’s agricultural sector and trade – not to mention the human suffering and stress on the health system once the virus jumps species to human beings.
This is true for the current Covid-19 pandemic that is causing havoc across the globe. The incentive for the agricultural sector (ie food and animal production) and the health sector to invest in infectious disease prevention should go beyond just its economic importance to overall GDP but also take into consideration the public health ramifications entailed.
For example, in South Africa, where animal production, meat, and animal products exports are important, investments in animal health infrastructure are prioritised, as indicated by the recent investment by the government into the building of a Foot and Mouth Disease Vaccine factory within the ARC.
However, many developing countries that engage in agricultural trade face competing priorities, resulting in lower investment in animal health infrastructure and protection, and therefore may potentially omit to employ adequate biosecurity measures.
ARC in collaboration with the OBP are poised to offer the much needed technical expertise required for building the capacity of the public sector in South Africa to develop and produce vaccines for human health.
Furthermore, it is not too late for South Africa to produce its own Covid-19 vaccine whether through public private partnership such as the Biovac Institute or through the public sector using the ARC and OBP as lead organisations.
The proposed endeavour should go beyond what the Biovac Institute is currently doing, which is importing, labelling and distributing vaccines to the South African market. It is a foregone conclusion that for South Africa to be better prepared for similar pandemics in future, the country will need to have greater vaccine manufacturing capacity.
Furthermore, the country should be willing to use and augment existing capacity as an advantage for building further capacity to an extent where imports are only used to supplement any shortfall that may be experienced from time to time.
Public institutions with expertise in vaccine development and production should be afforded the latitude to gain more technical expertise and experience through exposure.
Also, a more savvy entrepreneurial risk-taking environment is necessary. The creation of such an enabling environment is a competence of government thus the value of political will and commitment from policy makers is therefore indispensable.
In a nutshell, the capacity and expertise to develop and produce vaccines does exist in South Africa, albeit in an unexpected area. Increased public investment is required in this space to create the desired capacity while working collaboratively with the private sector. This is not a case of either public or private sector but a case of putting all hands on deck.
Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an agricultural economist and is the Group Executive: Impact & Partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council; [email protected]
*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites