SA to expedite Covid-19, cancer vaccine development at largest genomics facility on continent

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Patrick Soon-Shiong.
Patrick Soon-Shiong.
Darren McCollester, AFP

  • Billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong has partnered with local universities.
  • He has set up the biggest genomics facility in Africa at Stellenbosch University.
  • He also set up centres of excellence at the universities to research cancer, Covid-19, HIV/AIDS and TB.

Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong, the founder of the multinational conglomerate, NantWorks, has partnered with local universities to improve research into diseases. 

On Thursday evening, Soon-Shiong announced that his company had partnered with Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape to set up the biggest genomics facility in Africa - the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI).  

The South Africa-born scientist said the centre will do research on developing a cancer vaccine and a new Covid-19 vaccine.

The centre is a collaboration among NantAfrica, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the South African Medical Research Council, and the Universities of Cape Town, Witwatersrand, Stellenbosch and KwaZulu-Natal. It will be led by Professor Tulio de Oliveira.

De Oliveira said CERI will allow genomics technologies to be used in real-time, to trace and respond to epidemics and pandemics in Africa.

READ | SA-born biotech billionaire Soon-Shiong sees his shot as universal vaccine booster

"We are really excited to partner with Dr Soon-Shiong to set up the largest genomics facility on the African continent," he said.

The centre is expected to improve genomic sequencing on the continent. 

Soon-Shiong also announced that he would launch clinical centres of excellence for the treatment of cancers and infectious diseases, such as Covid-19, HIV/AIDS and TB, at the Universities of Cape Town, Witwatersrand, Stellenbosch and KwaZulu-Natal.  

Speaking at the launch, President Cyril Ramaphosa said the announcement was "a game-changer for our country". 

"This initiative is most timely for our fight against Covid-19, diseases management and future pandemic preparedness. As the African continent, we have been bemoaning that we have not been prepared for this pandemic. This will make us ahead of the curve."

Ramaphosa said the clinical centres of excellence were important for South Africa because of the high rates of cervical cancer.

"This comes at a time when the rate of cervical cancer is growing. In South Africa, it is higher than the global average."

He said he hoped the centres would train local oncologists.

Soon-Shiong said the collaboration was a way for him to give back to South Africa - and the continent. 

Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Blade Nzimande said: "I am grateful about the prospects that this collaboration with the CSIR will have for South Africa's vaccine manufacturing capacity.

"We appreciate the acknowledgement of the educational and scientific excellence and potential in the African continent that this agreement will bring, particularly on our training and research capability."

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