SOUTH AFRICA – Patrick Soon-Shiong, a US biotech billionaire, has launched a plant in Cape Town that will produce a billion Covid-19 vaccine doses per year by 2025, making it Africa’s largest such factory and potentially helping the continent’s least vaccinated continent combat the pandemic.

Soon-Shiong launched the initiative with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at the site of a former warehouse near Cape Town, where the new facility will be built. Soon-Shiong was born in South Africa and founded NantWorks in Los Angeles in 2007.

The biotech entrepreneur has also pledged US$6.5 million in scholarships to employees at the facility. He will also contribute two large DNA sequencers.

Africa has struggled to obtain vaccines at a time when wealthy countries were already immunizing their populations. According to the World Health Organization, only about 7% of Africans are fully immunized.

We need more vaccine doses, we need better therapeutics, and we need to protect the people of our continent against future variants and future pandemics,” Ramaphosa said. “That is why we have been working to establish new pharmaceutical manufacturing capabilities to produce the COVID-19 (vaccine) and other vaccines.

Aspen Pharmacare in South Africa already manufactures the J&J COVID-19 vaccine in Gqeberha, formerly known as Port Elizabeth.

The Aspen facility blends the imported vaccine components, places them in vials, and packages the doses, a process known as fill-and-finish.

This facility, which has a capacity of 220 million vaccines per year, sells them in South Africa and to other African countries.

The Biovac Institute in Cape Town operates another vaccine production plant in South Africa in collaboration with Pfizer-BioNTech to produce 100 million vaccine doses annually.

Then, in October, Moderna announced that it had begun looking for locations in Africa where it could build a US$500 million mRNA manufacturing facility capable of producing hundreds of millions of vaccine doses per year in anticipation of future demand.

According to Ramaphosa, Africa has obtained 500 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines through the African Union’s vaccine acquisition task team, but the continent requires more.

These doses represent only around half of what the continent needs to vaccinate 900 million people in order to achieve the 70% target set by the World Health Organization,” said Ramaphosa.

In addition to producing COVID-19 vaccines, the new facility will focus on developing products to combat HIV, various types of cancer, and other diseases that may not be a major health concern in other parts of the world but are major health concerns in Africa.

According to John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the new facility will help address the continent’s public health challenges.

This pandemic caught the continent off guard in terms of access to health security commodities, which are diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics,” he said. “The continent has embraced a new public health order, that speaks to the need for us to manufacture vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics.”

ImmunityBio, another of Soon-companies, Shiong’s is testing a novel coronavirus vaccine candidate in South Africa, with the goal of priming the body’s soldier T cells to kill the coronavirus.

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