Durban - The announcement of a R3 billion pledge by SA-born biotech billionaire Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong, 68, to help South Africa in the fight against Covid-19 was a welcome shot in the arm for Covid-weary South Africans this week.
This as Gauteng premier David Makhura confirmed yesterday, Friday, that the province had officially entered the third wave as infection numbers climbed steadily this week.
On Wednesday, Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth) born-and-bred Soon-Shiong who went to Wits University and is the founder of Nantworks, a network of healthcare, biotech and artificial intelligence start-ups, as well as owning the Los Angeles Times, announced during a World Health Organization (WHO) meeting that he would give $213 million (R3 billion) to South Africa toward Covid-19 vaccine work.
During the virtual international meeting on equitable vaccine distribution which was co-chaired by the WHO, Soon-Shiong said South Africa had “the science, the human capital and the capacity and the desire”, adding that “South Africa could catalyse the capacity building and self-sufficiency and most importantly the innovation for Africa and for vaccines”.
On Thursday the government applauded the R3 billion commitment by Soon-Shiong which will see the transfer of the latest technology for producing vaccines and biological therapies to South Africa.
In a Cabinet statement, it said this would advance science in second generation vaccines which will address variants of the coronavirus, for which current vaccines may be less effective.
While the latest Covid technology was not detailed in the announcement, Professor Patrick Arbuthnot, director of the Wits Antiviral Gene Therapy Research Unit which has partnered with Biovac to develop skills capacity to produce vectored vaccines in South Africa, said on Friday: “Production of an ingestible adenovirus-based anti-Sars-CoV-2 vaccine, Dr Soon-Shiong’s technology is impressive and has big advantages over the injectable vaccines. Setting this up in SA would be very useful.”
Alex van den Heever, who chairs Social Systems Administration and Management Studies in the Wits School of Governance and a health policy expert, also applauded it as a “positive move”.
But he said there were obstacles to overcome in developing production. Regarding governance, he said that would have to come from the donor.
Van den Heever added that creating the capability to produce vaccines was not sufficient.
“It depends on the actual cost of the product. If it is not low, it will not be viable,” he said, adding that not much information had been available.
Meanwhile, civil society groups and opposition parties have also welcomed the generous gesture by Soon-Shiong to assist South Africa, but have cautioned against possible corruption.
KwaZulu-Natal’s Burton Jaganathan, of the NPO Right2Know, said: “It’s brilliant news, but we must learn from our mistakes in the past where money was mismanaged and not used in the way it should have been.
“There will have to be proper oversight, monitoring as well as strict protocols in place to ensure any vaccines get to the people for which they are intended,” said Jaganathan.
He added that there had been a meeting of civil society groups this week where dealing with corruption was one of the major topics on its agenda.
“Civil society should be involved in vaccine roll-outs as they know their own communities better than anyone. Communities have stepped in many times when the government has failed,” he said.
Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA) CEO Wayne Duvenage said they welcomed the financial assistance and input from Dr Soon-Shiong to assist the country in tackling the coronavirus and improve our technological capabilities in the production of vaccines and biological therapies.
“We trust and hope that these funds will be rigorously and transparently managed to ensure they are protected from corruption and maladministration which has been a common problem by the SA government.”
Opposition parties also welcomed the pledge, with Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) national spokesperson Mkhuleko Hlengwa saying: “With such a large donation, there may be room for corruption as was the case with PPE looting and therefore we appeal to the government to closely monitor these funds.
“Parliament’s health portfolio may keep a close eye on funds spent and should hold any institution accountable to ensure that the funds are spent in line with the intended technology transfer and assistance in our vaccine efforts and trials,” said Hlengwa.
The DA’s Siviwe Gwarube said donations should be managed in a specific manner, suggesting the Solidarity Fund, “where there is a board in place, checks and balances to prevent grand-scale corruption”.
However on Twitter, the people of South Africa were quick to give the thumbs up, sending lots of South African warmth to Dr Soon-Shiong, led by Professor Thuli Madonsela who tweeted in response to a New York Times tweet on Soon-Shiong’s announcement.
#GoodNews: Let’s hang in there. Vaccines are coming. In the meantime, let’s take collective action to prevent a #COVID19 #ThirdWave . It’s not a given that we must experience it https://t.co/VbdZeI5KGW— Prof Thuli Madonsela (@ThuliMadonsela3) May 13, 2021
And his home turf must have been on the doctor’s mind this week as he shared a clip of UCT students doing the JerusalemaChallenge and tweeting “this makes me homesick. Ikhaya lam! #JerusalemaDanceChallenge”.
The Independent on Saturday