Biovac Institute CEO Dr Morena Makhoana (Photo by Misha Jordaan/Gallo Images via Getty Images)
  • Biovac has been supplying South Africa and neighbouring countries with vaccines for tuberculosis, measles, hepatitis, and pneumonia.
  • Now it has inked an important deal with Pfizer-BioNTech to increase its output from 15 million to 100 million vaccine doses over the next two years.
  • Biovac will supply 55 African countries with these Covid-19 vaccines.
  • But even before the pandemic, CEO Dr Morena Makhoana had planned to produce 1 billion vaccine doses before 2030.
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The CEO of South Africa’s Biovac Institute Dr Morena Makhoana was destined for a career in medicine and science but it’s also his business acumen which has helped secure a vital partnership with Covid-19 vaccine manufacturer, Pfizer-BioNTech.

More than 4.7 billion doses of the Covid-19 vaccine have been administered globally since the start of the pandemic. Less than 90 million doses – not even 2% of the global total – have been administered in Africa.

This issue of vaccine inequality, largely a consequence of hoarding by developed nations and the unavailability of local production, threatens to further isolate low-income countries, and prolong the pandemic.

Biovac, a public-private partnership with the South African government, has been called on to help solve the problem of supply and production on the African continent. For the past 18 years, Biovac has supplied vaccines for tuberculosis, measles, hepatitis, and pneumonia to South Africa and neighbouring countries.

In successfully supplying more than 15 million doses of these vaccines every year, Biovac has now been enlisted to play a bigger role in Africa’s Covid-19 immunisation drive. Makhoana, who joined Biovac in 2004, just one year after it was founded, had already envisioned a greater purpose for the institute even before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Fulfilling a father’s wish

The 44-year-old Makhoana grew up in Soweto, the youngest four children and the only boy. Makhoana’s father stressed the importance of doing well academically.

“My dad was obsessed with education, and I think if he had a wish, he would’ve wanted all four of us to be doctors,” Makhoana tells Business Insider South Africa.

“So, we grew up under that mindset of always doing well academically… and myself and one of my sisters ended up being doctors.”

After finishing high school with good grades, Makhoana left Johannesburg and enrolled at the University of Cape Town (UCT). And although his father’s wishes for a career in medicine rang strong, Makhoana was still drawn towards business.

“I was very fortunate to get into UCT… things were getting better by the time I matriculated but it was still not easy to get into a historically white university,” says Makhoana.

“I was torn between medicine and doing a BCom, and I think that’s probably why I went into business later on. On the one hand I loved business, on the other hand I loved science… I chose medicine and I’m not regretting it one bit.”

The business of vaccines and partnering with Pfizer-BioNTech

It’s Makhoana love for business – bolstered by furthering his education with the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and Harvard Business School between 2014 and 2017 – that would play a vital role in negotiating with major pharmaceutical companies during the Covid-19 pandemic.

ImmunityBio, part-owned by South African-born billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, is trialling its antibody-based, hAd5 T-cell SARS-CoV-2 vaccine which aims to be more effective against emerging Covid-19 variants. A partnership between Biovac and ImmunityBio was announced in March, which would bolster active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) manufacturing in South Africa.

More recently, Pfizer announced that it had partnered with Biovac to supply 55 members of the African Union with Covid-19 vaccines. Biovac’s Cape Town facility will be upgraded and incorporated into Pfizer’s vaccine supply chain, aiming to scale output to 100 million doses by 2023.

It’s the first time mRNA vaccines will be produced on the African continent. It also gives Biovac a chance to work with new technology, increase its capacity, and get exposure to other markets.

“This really gives us an export opportunity. Whilst we were doing exports mainly to the countries surrounding South Africa, this really goes continental. So, for [Biovac], it’s massive,” says Makhoana.

The plan for a billion vaccine doses, even before Covid-19

While the pandemic has increased the demand from and opportunities for Biovac, the company was already planning to scale its operations between 2020 and 2030. Covid-19 has just upped the pace of creating what Makhoana describes as “Biovac 2.0”.

“This is a validation of what we’ve always wanted Biovac to be. We were established as a vaccine company and we’ve done fairly well in supplying the domestic market under trying circumstances,” says Makhoana.

“The next phase of Biovac, and this is something we decided before Covid, we said by 2030 we want to be a supplier of a billion doses of vaccine. This [the deal with Pfizer] has now accelerated that [plan] but it's really the validation of the dreams and the vision we [already] had.”

Pfizer’s ‘fill-and-finish’ deal is just the start

Although the Biovac-Pfizer partnership is a massive boost for Africa’s vaccine supply – and its stability into the future – health activists argue that it’s a far cry from an actual technology transfer which would empower the local manufacturing of mRNA vaccines.

In reality, Biovac will handle the final stages of manufacturing in a “fill-and-finish” process after acquiring the vaccine’s ingredients from BioNTech’s production facility in Germany. But Makhoana says that this arrangement is first of its kind signed with a developing nation and that it’s the first phase of a broader, more independent positioning for Biovac.

“I think people minimise the complexities of what has to be done with fill-finish. It’s actually a very complex, technical process. When you look at how many deals Pfizer has done in the developing world with this particular technology, even at a fill-finish level, we are the first in the developing world,” says Makhoana.

“The transaction we are undergoing is not because of ‘shame, you’re in Africa, let’s just give you a little bit’… this is the type of deals that they [Pfizer] do with other multinationals.”

“Rome was not built in one day… look how long Moderna took before Covid and who knows whether they were even going to survive [as] more than ten years being a small biotech company and how many billions have gone into building that capability.”

“I am extremely confident that in the next five to seven years Biovac will be manufacturing some of those vaccines from scratch. But it’s a journey… it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. It’s actually an ultra-marathon but we will get there.” 

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