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Wits and Biovac partner to develop skills to produce viral vectored vaccines in South Africa

- Wits University

The Antiviral Gene Therapy Research Unit via Wits Enterprise has partnered with Biovac to develop the skills capacity to produce viral vectored vaccines in SA.

Demonstrating that South Africa has the capability and the skills resources to tackle serious health problems, Wits University’s Antiviral Gene Therapy Research Unit (AGTRU), with Wits Commercial Enterprise acting on its behalf, partnered with Cape Town based bio-pharmaceutical company, Biovac, in a partnership announced on 2 March 2021.

Wits Enterprise is a private company wholly owned by Wits University and mandated to promote and commercialise Wits’ intellectual capital, research and innovations, so as to broaden and deepen the University's societal impact.

AGTRU has specialised expertise in advancing gene therapy for viral infections. Viruses can be genetically engineered for gene therapy to treat genetic diseases, viral infections, develop vaccines and boost immunity. 

Wits' team specialises in the engineering, propagation and assay of adenoviruses, which as carriers (vectors) of genes encoding immunogenic proteins, are gaining favour in the production of viral vectored vaccines including vaccines against COVID-19. 

“Our team’s ability to engineer, propagate, purify and assay the engineered viruses is a highly specialised technology. To the best of our knowledge, the Wits/SAMRC facility is the only one with expertise in this technology in the country, and perhaps the continent,” says Personal Professor Patrick Arbuthnot, Director of AGTRU.

Viral vector-based vaccines are different from most conventional vaccines in that they use the body’s cells to produce antigens. The modified virus is capable of carrying the genetic code for the antigen into many different types of cells, including those of humans, which are then instructed to make large amounts of antigen. This triggers an intended immune response to fight the pathogen (fir example, SARS-CoV-2). 

Arbuthnot explains: “The genetic material of the virus - DNA in the case of adenoviruses - is modified by removing some of the viral genes. These are replaced with the DNA coding of an immunity-causing protein, such as the spike protein of the SARS Coronavirus-2 that causes COVID-19. The virus itself is harmless and by stimulating cells to produce antigens, can safely promote an immune response. 

As a safety precaution, engineered viruses are replication-incompetent. This means that they cannot produce new viruses in a person receiving the vaccine and they can only proliferate in a laboratory-controlled setting where the deficiencies of the engineered virus are complemented in the cells producing the virus.”

The Wits team will assist with building specialist skills capacity within Biovac to generate engineered viruses that may be used as COVID-19 and other vaccines, according to Arbuthnot.

“We have confidence that the collaboration will facilitate an enhanced capability and readiness for future production of active pharmaceutical ingredient/drug substances for vaccines targeted at viruses such as SAR-CoV-2 in South Africa. If successful, it will be a good example of how leveraging South African partnerships to tap into specialist resources can address South Africa’s preparedness for future disease outbreaks. It will also be an endorsement of the government’s investment in basic research in South Africa,” he adds.

Biovac is a bio-pharmaceutical company based in Cape Town that is the result of a partnership formed with the South African government in 2003 to establish local vaccine manufacturing capability for the provision of vaccines. The company started its journey of building manufacturing capability by following a reverse integration approach wherein it has been importing, exporting, formulating, filling packaging, testing and supplying vaccines. Biovac currently supplies over 15 million doses of vaccines via its cold and supply chain infrastructure. 

Commenting on the partnership with the Wits/ South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) Antiviral Gene Therapy Research Unit, Dr Morena Makhoana, Biovac CEO, says: “South Africa desperately needs to build capability to manufacture viral vaccines from scratch rather than importing the API [active pharmaceutical ingredient]. Biovac has built capability in formulation and filling of vaccines and this partnership, utilizing the skills transfer from Wits, is an excellent start to building the know-how to produce viral vectored vaccines. It’s part of Biovac’s reverse integration strategy towards building end-to-end vaccine manufacturing capability.”