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A Dis-Chem pharmacy in Rosebank, Johannesburg. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL
A Dis-Chem pharmacy in Rosebank, Johannesburg. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

SA’s expertise in hi-tech pharmaceuticals has rewarded the country with not one but two special international vaccine manufacturing partnerships. 

The global south has largely been starved of Covid-19 vaccines as international competition rages for scarce supplies, which have mostly been cornered by the global north. Anger, shock and despair were among the emotions we felt in Africa as vaccine supplies trickled in.

Less than 2% of the continent’s people have been vaccinated. This contrasts with countries of the global north such as the UK, where vaccination levels are so high that the adult population is considered fully vaccinated.

Fortunately, we are making a plan — and that has helped us turn another vital strategic corner for vaccines in Africa. I am especially proud that both the exciting plans for our pharmaceutical industry are brought here by two members of the Innovative Pharmaceutical Association of SA (Ipasa), Pfizer and Janssen.

We celebrated late in 2020 when Janssen, part of multinational pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson (J&J), chose local company Aspen Pharmacare as its local manufacturing partner. At Ipasa we see it as great recognition of the skills and expertise already developed in the SA pharmaceutical industry.

Aspen is manufacturing what we know as the J&J vaccine for distribution in SA and the continent beyond. This vaccine’s one-shot dosage is particularly important in settings where other vaccines cannot be used because there is no infrastructure to store them in the freezing cold chain needed to keep them active and effective.

In July we celebrated again when Ipasa’s Pfizer and its vaccine development partner, BioNTech, partnered with Cape Town-based SA biopharmaceutical company Biovac to manufacture vaccines that will be distributed within the AU. This is the equivalent of a second gold medal for Biovac, which already signed up with Pfizer in 2019 to manufacture its antipneumonia vaccine Prevenar 13 for the local market.

For SA companies to be identified as partners in the high-stakes vaccine supply race is a mark of their quality production at the highest level and augurs well for them to again be identified as partners for technology transfer in the future.

Around the world there are shortages of raw materials for vaccines, manufacturing supplies — from cell-culture media to filters, vials and stoppers — and skilled staff such as laboratory technicians, maintenance crews, quality controllers and trainers. All of these and more are in huge demand for vaccine production.

The World Bank has calculated that 11-billion vaccines are needed globally for every adult to be vaccinated by the end of the year. Our overarching trade association, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associates (IFPMA), estimates that vaccine deliveries will increase by three to six times of current levels in the last quarter of this year.

Governments and health departments that will be receiving vaccines need to make sure their supply and distribution systems are up to the task. Trade barriers may need easing to receive vaccine ingredients without delay. Supply chains — and particularly cold chains — need to function smoothly and speedily so that patients are vaccinated well before the vaccine’s shelf life expires.

On a continent where some countries are already struggling to meet the UN sustainable development goals, it is vital not to lose more time in rolling out vaccines, to the people of Southern Africa and Africa as a whole. We believe this is about more than caring, sharing and showing ubuntu. The blunt fact is that nobody is truly safe from Covid-19 until the majority is vaccinated.

Over the past month the IFPMA has rolled out its “Five Steps to Advance Covid-19 Vaccine Equity”:

  • Step up dose sharing. This is a critical urgent step towards vaccine equity: it needs support to be successful;
  • Continue to optimise production. Maximise Covid-19 vaccine output without compromising safety and quality, including through additional collaborations with partners that can produce significant quantities;
  • Call out trade barriers so that they can be eliminated;
  • Support country readiness. Partner with governments on Covid-19 vaccine deployment, particularly in low- and lower-middle income countries, to ensure they are ready and able to deploy available doses within their shelf life; and
  • Drive further innovation. The evolution of the Covid-19 virus is a stark reminder that research and innovation must continue.

There are more than 300 pharmaceutical partnerships globally aimed at rapidly scaling up vaccine manufacture to achieve greater vaccine equity, according to the IFPMA. As with the SA examples, these partnerships are based on voluntary licensing agreements that allow for technology transfers.

Companies selected to partner in vaccine manufacture will benefit from the vaccine innovator transferring know-how, necessary technology and sometimes direct investment so the local partner can optimise output of quality vaccine.

Ultimately, the legacy of skills development for both technical and management staff will benefit the company’s future undertakings, our country and our continent. Hopefully, such collaborations will be templates for many more pharmaceutical partnerships that will also help ensure we are better prepared for the next pandemic.

• Pharasi is CEO of the Innovative Pharmaceutical Association of SA.

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