South Africa Opens Africa’s First Vaccine Manufacturing Plant. What It Means For Africa

President Ramaphosa and Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong inaugurating NantSA, the first to fully produce covid-19 vaccines

President Ramaphosa and Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong inaugurating NantSA, the first to fully produce covid-19 vaccines
President Ramaphosa & Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong inaugurating NantSA (Photo credit: @DrPatSoonShiong/Twitter)

Africa now has a COVID-19 vaccines manufacturing facility. This comes after South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, and billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong inaugurated Africa’s first COVID-19 vaccine plant on Wednesday, January 19, 2022. The NantSA facility will be the first of its kind in the African continent to fully produce coronavirus vaccines. Based in Cape Town, the plant will significantly enhance Africa’s capacity to produce coronavirus vaccines.

NantSA will begin production later this year. The facility aims to manufacture up to a billion doses a year by 2025 when it becomes fully operational. Born in South Africa, Soon-Shiong is an African-American transplant surgeon, bioscientist, and billionaire businessman. The tycoon was born to Chinese immigrant parents. Upon completing medical studies, he moved to the US to undertake surgical training and afterward became a certified surgeon.

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He is the founder of NantWorks, a US-based multinational biotechnology firm. This company is said to have invested around $200 million to begin the NantSA project. The South African government and some local universities are also part of the COVID-19 vaccines plant establishment.

Africa’s Struggle to Access COVID-19 Vaccines

After the pandemic struck the world, wealthy nations led the development and production of vaccines. So far, developed countries have acquired those vaccines and administered them to most of their populations. However, African countries have all along struggled to secure COVID-19 vaccine doses. According to WHO statistics, 9.6 billion doses had been administered globally as of Jan. 18, 2022.

Sadly, only about 10% of Africa’s population is fully vaccinated due to limited access to vaccine doses. This situation is mainly attributed to the fact that Africa has not been able to produce COVID-19 vaccines. Thankfully, the launching of the NantSA facility offers great hope towards ending this struggle. Speaking during the momentous day, president Ramaphosa said,

“The pandemic has revealed the huge disparities that exist within and between countries in access to quality healthcare, medicines, diagnostics, and vaccines. Africa should no longer be last in line to access vaccines against pandemics. Africa should no longer go cap in hand to the Western world, begging and begging for vaccines.”

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NantSA is expected to begin making coronavirus vaccines and address the dearth of production capacity facing Africa. Soon-Shiong also plans to transfer technology and materials including bioreactors stockpiled at NantWorks to South Africa to boost capacity at his newly launched facility. To ensure there is a pipeline of skilled workers at the plant, the billionaire businessman has pledged $6.5 million for scholarships.

Enhancing Africa’s Capacity to Fight Health Challenges

In addition to making COVID-19 vaccines, NantSA will also focus on producing health products to combat major health problems in the African continent. These include various types of cancer as well as HIV/AIDs. Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director, John Nkengasong, told ABC News that Soon-Shiong’s new plant will contribute significantly towards addressing public health challenges facing Africa. He added,

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

Currently, the South Africa-based Aspen Pharmacare assembles Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine. It packages doses after blending imported components of the vaccine. Aspen Pharmacare sells these vaccines in South Africa and also to other countries in Africa. The Biovac Institute and WHO manufacturing hub that are based in Cape Town are also working towards producing coronavirus vaccines.

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Developing Africa’s capacity to manufacture vaccines will help African countries to easily access enough doses of COVID-19 vaccine for their populations. The continent will also have a stronger footing when it comes to combating future health crises.

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