By Mark MacNaughton
The Global Risk Report of the World Economic Forum 2023 anticipates that as the world faces low growth, low co-operation, and enormous threats to human resilience and development, the opportunities and challenges that rapid technological advances offer can be the developing world’s saviour and false messiah.
According to the report, “research and development into emerging technologies will continue at pace over the next decade, yielding advancements in AI, quantum computing and biotechnology…. For countries that can afford it, these technologies will provide partial solutions to a range of emerging crises, from addressing new health threats and a crunch in healthcare capacity, to scaling food security and climate mitigation. For those that cannot, inequality and divergence will grow”.
For us on the ground in South Africa, the question goes beyond whether the technologies are affordable. Our investment in and welcoming of biotechnology and technology transfers is an imperative of national importance and a matter of health security. This must be prioritised in health care, agriculture and environmental protection if future generations are to reap the rewards that a sustainably and inclusively transformed economy offers.
And the specific, practical lessons that Biovac has learnt about the challenges and opportunities that health-care tech transfers promise for that sustained growth are instructive for investment across our flat-lining economy.
Technology transfers play a vital role in economic development. They entail the voluntary exchange of know-how, experience and expertise with a trusted recipient. Through this transfer, knowledge gaps can be quickly bridged, people can be rapidly upskilled by seasoned experts, and the right equipment can be swiftly procured towards innovation and advancement.
For vaccines and medicines in South Africa specifically, tech transfers mean that better, stronger and more viable local solutions are available for our country’s local scientists and doctors and other healthworkers working for improved health care. Tech transfers mean that our skills are retained (and developed), our infrastructure is enhanced, and South Africans can benefit from the best biotech in the world, right here at home. It also provides an environment for local innovation to be developed and nurtured for future generation products.
Biovac signed its first tech transfer agreement with global pharmaceutical experts Sanofi back in 2012. This was for a complex six-in-one combination vaccine that had recently been licensed in Europe. It was the only one of its kind, in that it was the first technology transfer of the most advanced combination vaccine globally and was the first technology transfer from a multinational to an African vaccine manufacturer. A second technology transfer with another multinational, Pfizer, was signed in 2015 and a third again with Pfizer in 2021.
Over the past eight years, in which South Africa has been showcased as a desirable biotech investment destination, the Biovac-Pfizer partnership alone has enabled in excess of R1 billion of inward foreign direct investment in to South Africa. It has produced two successful technology transfers that have enabled Biovac to formulate, fill, finish and distribute Prevanar 13 (PCV 13) through South Africa’s Department of Health expanded programme of immunisation for children. More than three million doses are administered to South African newborn children each year, and more than 30 million doses have been supplied to the South African market since 2009 through Biovac.
The tech transfer included all quality control and analytics, making it a full inward tech transfer, and in addition to formulation and filling, all testing is done locally, in-house. The tech transfer also meant that Biovac became the first South African company to produce a vaccine in a pre-filled syringe, which allows for far safer and easier use at the point of immunisation.
It has allowed South African health to transition to the most innovative pneumococcal vaccines on the continent, improving health outcomes and providing a pathway for South Africa to play its part in creating even more advanced and innovative vaccines for better country, continental and global health outcomes. One of the stand-out results of this tech transfer, in addition to the huge foreign direct investment into the local economy, has been the significant reduction in pneumococcal disease.
And on the back of successfully executing the technology transfer for PCV 13, Biovac rapidly accelerated its local manufacturing capability for the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, Cominarty, for the South African market during the recent pandemic. Biovac also enabled export of this vaccine to AU member states.
Critically, we required the best skills and people to perform this essential scientific work. Part of Sanofi’s and Pfizer’s contribution was heavy investment in state-of-the-art equipment and training. Biovac recruited the best skills and employees grew from 195 at the start of the project to 325 employees once the transfer was completed.
And this investment, coupled with a dogged determination to make sure that the right vaccine skills, tech and science were expertly available locally, proved to be exactly what South Africa needed when the pandemic was declared just three years ago. Once again, South Africa’s investment attractiveness shone when Biovac became the first company in the Global South with which Pfizer entered into a tech transfer for the Cominarty vaccine and the latest technology of mRNA. This partnership is the only one of its kind in Africa. It demonstrates the depth of capabilities exemplified by Biovac, built steadily over time, and the confidence that this gives to meaningful inward investment of the latest global technologies.
In excess of R350 million was invested by both companies into specialised mRNA equipment, an ultra-low temperature storage facility, expansion of the quality control laboratory, and a new formulation area at Biovac’s Cape Town facility. On the basis of this, Biovac partnered with the Department of Health in making Covid-19 vaccines quickly accessible. The tech transfer also included all quality control and analytics for new technology of mRNA, meaning that Biovac and South Africa are excellently positioned to keep growing and attracting tech and skills transfers to contribute to even better, stronger and more resilient public health outcomes.
Health experts know that the next pandemic is coming, it’s just a question of what and when. To ensure South Africa can meet any health risk head-on, we need to continue to attract, retain and develop the very best vaccine technology possible. This is a matter of health security so that Africa should not find itself being last in the queue to receive much needed vaccines in times of crises.
Mark MacNaughton is Chief Operating Officer of Biovac South Africa