South African-American biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong has committed an initial R3 billion to help build out South Africa’s capabilities to produce COVID-19 vaccines.
This comes after Deputy President David Mabuza in March said that government was in discussion with Soon-Shiong’s ImmunityBio on a vaccine production contract.
As part of the project, ImmunityBio has been conducting clinical trials of its HAd5-COVID-19 second-generation vaccine candidate in the US and South Africa. It aims to produce this vaccine in Khayelitsha in the Western Cape.
During an online World Health Organisation (WHO) meeting on Wednesday, Soon-Shiong said his company would bring its technologies and expertise to South Africa to enable vaccine production capabilities.
“While South Africa has not in its own right built a vaccine since 2001, that will change,” he said.
“We as an organisation will commit an initial R3 billion to catalyse this activity in South Africa and then work with Africa, so that the capacity and most importantly second-generation vaccinology, second-generation cell therapy, and second generation delivery systems could be enabled.”
Soon-Shiong is best known as the inventor of the Abraxane drug, which is highly regarded for its efficacy in the treatment of lung, breast, and pancreatic cancer.
He is also the founder of NantHealth, which provides fibre and cloud-based data infrastructure to share healthcare information, and NantWorks, a network of healthcare, biotech, and AI startups.
Shoon-Shiong was born in Port Elizabeth in 1952 to Chinese parents who fled the country during its occupation by Japan in World War II.
He obtained his bachelor’s degree in medicine from the University of Witwatersrand at the age of 23, graduating fourth out of his class of 189 students.
He completed his internship at Johannesburg’s General Hospital before studying for a master’s degree at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
After receiving a number of research awards from prominent surgical colleges and institutions he moved to the US, where he has built multiple successful pharmaceutical and healthcare companies.
He is also the owner and executive chairman of two prominent newspapers – the Los Angeles Times and The Sand Diego Union-Tribune – and a minority owner of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team.
During the WHO Conference, Shoon-Shiong stated his companies had a proven track record of large scale medicine production capabilities.
“We have produced over 150 FDA-approved products, a million vials a day, over the last decade,” Shoon-Shiong stated.
“We have the experience and know-how of how to scale for a country like the United States.”
Shoon-Shiong said his commitment now was to address the real need for vaccine capacity generation in South Africa and Africa as a whole.
“I’ve been interacting directly with my fellow South Africans for the last year. People like Tulio De Oliviera, the SAMRC’s Glenda Gray, and the government itself,” he said.
“I am more and more convinced that not only do we have the science, but we have the human capital and the desire to catalyse the capacity-building and the self-sufficiency, and most importantly the innovation for Africa and for vaccines.”
Third wave incoming
The investment in local vaccine production comes at a time when South Africa is bracing for a possible third wave of COVID-19 infections.
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has warned provinces that COVID-19 cases are climbing rapidly in South Africa.
“For all intents and purposes, we are in a third wave even if not fitting in technical definition. The numbers will no longer go down other than if we start intensive containment measures,” the minister stated.
The 7-day average for new COVID-19 cases has gradually increased over the last two weeks days – from 1,175 on 30 April to 1,973 on 12 May.
While South Africa has secured enough shots from Johnson and Johnson and Pfizer-BioNTech to vaccinate 41.5 million people, the majority of these will only arrive in the coming months.
According to Crinical Trials Arena, ImmunityBio’s vaccine candidate targets both the mutation-prone outer spike protein (S) and the more stable inner nucleocapsid (N) protein.
This allows it to activate antibodies, memory B cells, and T-cells against the virus, which can help boost existing vaccines or effectively act against the virus’s variants.
“Unlike antibody-based vaccines, T-cell-based vaccines kill the infected cell, preventing virus replication and could provide long-term immune memory to recipients,” Soon-Shiong previously said.
“Pursuing a vaccine that does not rely solely on targeting the S protein where the mutations are occurring is of critical importance as multiple variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus have appeared globally, with concentrated outbreaks beginning in South Africa.”