South African vaccine maker boosts its continental reach

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- South African vaccine maker Biovac Institute, in partnership with major pharmaceutical firms, is on track to boost annual capacity sevenfold to 35 million doses by 2013, its deputy chief executive said.

Morena Makhoana said Jan. 25 that the bulk of the doses, 25 million, will be destined for Africa, where a lack of manufacturing capacity meant the world's poorest continent was dependant on imported vaccines to fight diseases such as tuberculosis and cholera.

"We are in discussions with Sanofi-Pasteur, a unit of Sanofi-Aventis, with GlaxoSmithKline and with Wyeth, who are now called Pfizer, and all three of them have shown a willingness to enter into a technology transfer with one, or a few, of their vaccines already in the South African market," Makhoana told Reuters in an interview.

GlaxoSmithKline indicated earlier this month it would give away access to a stock of 13,500 potential malaria treatments for others to test and develop further.

Makhoana said the proposed technology transfers would enable Biovac, a public-private partnership established between the South African government and the Biovac Consortium in 2003, to reposition itself from a company involved in the late stages of production to one that is involved in the whole vaccine development cycle.

Makhoana said the increased capacity would mean Biovac could respond to pandemics, such as the H1N1 flu virus that has killed nearly 14,000 worldwide, in the future.

Biovac is the only human vaccine manufacturer in sub-Saharan Africa, with one smaller plant found in Senegal and another facility in Egypt that caters solely for its domestic market, Makhoana said.

It provides all of the pediatric vaccines in South Africa, its main market, mainly against diseases such as pneumonia, Hepatitis B and haemophilus, which causes meningitis.

Biovac also exports vaccines to Mozambique, Swaziland and Namibia.

However, as it takes on a more thorough production role it will be able to export further afield and to do more work with international organizations such as UNICEF, which procures vaccines for poor African nations.

"We are hoping to provide UNICEF with those vaccines and the geographical location of Biovac is very important because to transport the vaccines, from here to say, Lesotho ... is much easier than it coming from Asia or Europe," Makhoana said, adding that Biovac cannot provide UNICEF with vaccines until all its production systems are in place.