Next up in our series of Congress interviews is our conversation with Professor Petro Terblanche, CEO of Afrigen. She joined us at the Congress for a plenary session global manufacturing capability. We were delighted to secure some of her time to discuss the inequalities that became clear during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how we can improve access for future threats. We hope you enjoy the interview!
Introducing Professor Terblanche
Professor Terblanche is the CEO of Afrigen, a biotechnology company based in Cape Town. They host the mRNA hub programme, which we posted about recently here. Afrigen’s focus is on development and distribution of key biologicals to address unmet needs, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.
Lessons from COVID-19
For many of our speakers the COVID-19 pandemic was an educative experience, to say the least. However, Professor Terblanche brings a specific perspective on the question of the inequalities that were highlighted in the global immunisation efforts. She recognises the “landmark” achievement by many stakeholders to bring vaccines to the world, but suggests that in early and middle stages of the vaccination programmes there were “no vaccines for low- and middle-income countries”. Due to “vaccine hoarding” and the link between access and manufacturing, many countries were excluded from the global response.
To address the lessons from the pandemic and ensure “health security”, multiple initiatives were established to address the issue of “centralised vaccine manufacturing” and to promote a “decentralised” model for the future.
Building on the pandemic momentum
Although the pandemic highlighted some terrible inequalities, we also witnessed a unique opportunity to unite and innovate as a global community. We asked Professor Terblanche to tell us more about the positive side of this urgency.
“It was profound.”
Professor Terblanche suggests that we saw “unprecedented efforts” towards new platforms, new adjuvants, and new administration opportunities. This “profound” innovation was not limited to vaccines, but also diagnostic and therapeutic spaces.
“The pandemic did leverage, and unleash, a different energy.”
Furthermore, it brought the importance of vaccines to a “household level”, thanks to the “quest to be safe”.
“Vaccines became the household name.”
Although Professor Terblanche highlights the long journey ahead against vaccine hesitancy, she believes we have made great strides forward in vaccine education.
Afrigen and the importance of a workforce
Our next question for Professor Terblanche digs a little deeper into the work that Afrigen is doing, and with whom. She tells us that from the beginning, Afrigen’s “fundamental mandate” has been to “localise the manufacturing of vaccines for Africa”. Thus, when COVID-19 happened and WHO put out the call for applications to become hubs for technology development, “we were well suited”.
“We are very technology driven, very science and technology driven.”
At that time, Afrigen developed the technology and started sharing and training, transferring knowledge to 15 companies who were part of the network. Professor Terblanche proudly tells us that in the last 14 months they have trained 100 people in specific skills, from molecular biology to GMP cleaning. These efforts align with wider goals across the continent, such as Africa CDC’s workforce nurturing.
“Vaccines are not easy; they require a deep, technical knowledge base.”
As we observe the establishment of new facilities and the development of existing capabilities, we are curious to hear how sustainability factors in to what Professor Terblanche is doing. Her response is emphatic.
“Sustainability is paramount.”
The mRNA hub was created as a “response” to the pandemic; it will be a “fatal mistake”, Professor Terblanche warns, to not design the response to become “pandemic preparedness”.
“Pandemic preparedness requires sustainability.”
Although the programme is mRNA focused, there are challenges. For example we need a “pipeline of products”. We need to “reduce the cost of goods” through innovation, says Professor Terblanche. Furthermore, we “have to address the cold chain issues”, because the current requirements are not suitable for LMICs. Professor Terblanche emphasises the technology component in sustainability, stating that “building a platform for one product is not sustainable”.
Next, we need to ensure that we have an “ecosystem” that supports sustainable practices. From Professor Terblanche’s perspective, Afrigen’s ambition must be applied in different ways for different purposes. She compares the 15 participants of the network, with current capabilities ranging from mature and supported environments, to an incompletely developed ecosystem, to the final “green fields” group.
“The first group will hit the ground running, but we need to feed them with pipeline. The second group will take a little bit longer, and then there’s a third group that will take much much longer.
Whatever the application, Professor Terblanche is insistent that the response must result in pandemic preparedness.
An issue that is specific to Professor Terblanche’s experience of African development is local manufacturing procurement. She says the continent needs “major policy reform” to do “preferential procurement of locally produced vaccines”. Additionally, external support from organisations like Gavi and CEPI is essential.
“I am grateful to share that in the discussions we have with Gavi, with CEPI, with UNICEF, with The Global Fund, there is a clear realisation that procurement of local goods is essential for pandemic preparedness and for a sustainable vaccine industry.”
Discussion and partnerships at WVC
Our final question, as always, invites our speakers to share their hopes for the Congress, and what they are most looking forward to. For Professor Terblanche, the network opportunities are exciting. Afrigen’s meetings have a strong sustainability focus. They are proud that the programme has enabled Africa to collaborate with world leaders, biotechs, universities, and institutions across the globe.
“We are no longer just waiting for the world to innovate for us; we are able to innovate with the world.”
This final statement is an exciting hint at the emerging potential for innovation in Africa. We can’t wait to see what comes from Afrigen and partners, and are so grateful that Professor Terblanche had time to share her insights with us. For more like this, make sure you subscribe to our weekly newsletter. For more on the Congress this month, click here to download our post-Congress report.