As the West hoards vaccines, less than 10% of Africans are vaccinated. But now, the continent's first vaccine factory has opened in South Africa. And behind it is Patrick Soon-Shionga pharmaceutical billionaire with a mission to change the African continent.
CAPE TOWN — Patrick Soon-Shiong can certainly be described as a go-getter. The 69-year-old pharmaceutical entrepreneur became rich in the U.S. by selling cancer drugs, has bought the Los Angeles Times newspaper, and has acquired substantial shares in the legendary L.A. Lakers basketball team. As befits someone who consistently pursues his hobby, he had an underground basketball court built in his Los Angeles estate. Bloomberg estimates his fortune at $11 billion.
This is a remarkable career for the South African-born son of Chinese immigrants, who grew up in modest circumstances during apartheid – “on the wrong side of the tracks,” as Soon-Shiong once said in an interview. But recently in his country of birth, on Wednesday, Jan. 19, he experienced what he described as one of his “most monumental moments”.
At the opening of the NantSA factory and research facility in Cape Town, the entrepreneur said he will produce vaccines in South Africa – “for Africa and for export to the world.”
Breaking the colonial chains
The equivalent of at least 170 million euros has been pledged by Soon-Shiong, through his company NantWorks, for his new plant, which is cooperating with three South African universities and government research institutes. The goal is ambitious: within a year, the first second-generation mRNA vaccine, produced entirely and independently in Africa, will be ready.
Piece by piece, the colonial chains are being broken, and today we are breaking some
This vaccine, he promises, will provide much better protection against coronavirus infection than previous vaccines. After three years, annual capacity is expected to reach one billion vaccine doses. According to the entrepreneur’s plans, NantSA will become one of the largest production facilities in the world and create at least 400 jobs.
But there are still many question marks behind the venture, such as the approval of the vaccine. A clinical trial with South African healthcare workers is currently underway, and other trials are planned in the U.S., Australia and Europe. Ultimately, the company hopes to export worldwide.
In Africa, at least, expectations are huge because the unfair global distribution of vaccines in the pandemic has made vaccine production a political issue – and not just for the coronavirus. Within 20 years, according to plans of the African Union, 60% of all vaccines for Africans should be produced on the continent. Currently, it is only 1%.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (2nd L) and biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong (3rd L) cut the ribbon during the launch of a vaccine manufacturing campus in Cape Town.
A response to the West's hoarding
In African countries, COVID vaccine supplies have improved somewhat during the last few months. But still, not even 10% of the population in Africa has been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. This shameful figure says a lot about the lack of solidarity of industrialized countries during this pandemic. The continent wants to make itself independent from future hoarding by industrialized countries.
Accordingly, South Africa’s political elite was represented at the opening in Cape Town, along with some of the continent’s most renowned virologists. President Cyril Ramaphosa used the occasion for sharp rhetoric toward the West. “Piece by piece, the colonial chains are being broken, and today we are breaking some,” the politician said, these words deviating from the manuscript of the speech that was released to the media.
Africa can no longer “stand at the back of the queue” for access to vaccines, and the “begging” the West [for vaccines] must stop, said Ramaphosa, who had expressed deep disdain in the face of international travel restrictions against South Africans following the discovery of the Omicron virus variant there last December. “I thank you, son of South Africa, Patrick Soon-Shiong, for returning to your continent for this,” Ramaphosa said. The lauded pharmaceutical entrepreneur holds both South African and US citizenship.
A billionaire's promise
Soon-Shiong is hoping for support from Africa’s political elite to remove bureaucratic hurdles. In the long term, at least one more site will be opened in Botswana, and there are also said to be plans for Kenya and Uganda. In South Africa, the company Aspen has already begun producing vaccines for the US manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, and BioNTech and Moderna are also building plants in Africa or partnering with local manufacturers.
According to estimates by the Human Rights Watch organization, at least 120 pharmaceutical companies in Asia, Africa and Latin America would be able to produce an mRNA vaccine if the technology were made available to them. Soon-Shiong is now advertising that he will implement this on a large scale — and do so independently of the currently dominant manufacturers. After all, his company has more than 1,000 patents of its own.
Africa can no longer “stand at the back of the queue” for access to vaccines
This knowledge, which is to flow into the production facilities in Africa, goes far beyond the coronavirus. In the politically heated debate about the pandemic, it is sometimes forgotten how much the continent depends on new research impulses for other diseases, from HIV and tuberculosis to malaria or even cancer.
In these areas, too, the billionaire promises innovations in vaccine research – an undertaking in which some South African scientists have as much hope in as Soon-Shiong’s fight against the coronavirus. And one that could possibly save even more lives in the years to come.