‘The idea that there’s not enough human capital in South Africa is outrageous’: Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong

As the U.S. faces a cash crunch and global pressure to prioritize vaccinating African countries, two unlikely partners have joined forces to do the same, all without U.S. government funding or help.

Baylor College of Medicine’s Dr. Peter Hotez and ImmunityBio (IBRX) executive chairman Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong announced a partnership in late 2021 in which Hotez and his partner, Maria Elena Bottazzi, licensed their free, no-strings-attached COVID-19 vaccine candidate to ImmunityBio.

And the partnership is coming to fruition with a new manufacturing plant opening soon, Yahoo Finance has learned.

The biotech will “lead development, manufacture scale up and commercialization of the recombinant protein vaccine candidate in South Africa,” according to a statement, which also highlighted ImmunityBio’s own candidate and other technology platforms to create a consortium in South Africa.

Soon-Shiong, who was born in South Africa, told Yahoo Finance in a recent interview that he believes his efforts could contribute to better response preparedness in the future.

“We don’t want to crush any small South African companies such as Biovac, Afrigen … And the idea is to actually work in collaboration, but more importantly, the capacity we’re talking about is a billion doses of upstream biological manufacturing of adjuvants, self-amplifying RNA, yeast-based proteins, E. coli, recombinant proteins,” Soon-Shiong said.

He pointed in particular to the recombinant protein COVID-19 vaccine developed by Noble Peace Prize nominees Hotez and Bottazzi, nicknamed Corbevax. The vaccine is also being licensed and produced in India by Biological E — which currently has 250 million doses ready and is producing 140 million doses a month, according to Hotez — and will be sold for about $1.90 per dose, making it the cheapest globally.

“Unfortunately we don’t have a path in the U.S., we don’t have an interested industry partner, we don’t have any of the Operation Warp Speed or U.S. government support,” Hotez said.

It’s why he partnered with Soon-Shiong to build out in South Africa as well.

“And he’s now building infrastructure in South Africa as well as in Botswana,” Hotez said.

Details of this agreement remain under wraps for now, but Hotez said he hopes it leads to a “rich ecosystem built in Africa for producing vaccines of multiple different technologies.”

That includes mRNA, which already has several efforts in place for COVID-19 vaccines. From partnerships like Biovac Institute and Pfizer (PFE), to solo efforts like Afrigen Biologics — which just cracked the code to Moderna’s (MRNA) vaccine — and BioNTech (BNTX) offering to ship portable labs to Rwanda or Senegal.

But it also goes beyond the new technologies, older and more reliable technology is needed too.

“You never know which technology is going to work or not work for a given pathogen,” Hotez said, pointing to the difference in technologies that proved effective for Ebola versus COVID-19.

Sough Africa gained global attention for its track record in detecting concerning coronavirus variants, and most recently for its efforts to produce a vaccine. But it has struggled to move forward in production and faces challenges against the large pharmaceutical companies holding the patents — even as some have claimed to voluntarily waive enforcement during the global health emergency.

“I don’t have a problem with the Big Pharma companies, but you don’t want to be exclusively reliant on them, because you see what you got. You’ve got this gross health disparity between the (global) north and the south,” Hotez said.

“We have to break out of this one-dimensional [view] that only the multi-nationals can do this because, one, it’s not true, and two, it produced truly gross vaccine disparities and inequalities,” he added.

Soon-Shiong noted that part of the problem is a lack of understanding of the resources available in certain parts of the world.

“The idea that there’s not enough human capital in South Africa is outrageous,” Soon-Shiong said.

He noted that there have been scientific achievements in the past in the country and that its talent remains underestimated.

“My goal is to now expose the amazing innovation and scientific skills … and bring this to the forefront of the world,” Soon-Shiong said.

Follow Anjalee on Twitter @AnjKhem

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