Read the Conversation
EF: 2020 was the year of diagnostics, 2021 the year of vaccines; what do you think 2022 will be the year of?
BP: We are already starting the second quarter of the year; the lockdowns have been completely removed in South Africa and the economy generally can go back to where it used to be. This does not mean we have seen the end of Covid-19. We keep learning from Covid-19, and we know vaccination has had a key role in preventing deaths and prolonged hospitalizations. Its impact appears to wane over time, as in the flu vaccine, which must be taken annually. The pharma industry must continue working on research and development on Covid-19 drugs and related illnesses to keep people out of hospitals and reduce death incidents. We have statistics from one of the major medical schemes, Discovery Health, which clearly show the impact of diabetes and mental health. The challenge for the innovative pharma industry is to continue research in those areas. At the onset of Covid-19, the focus was on the pandemic, with hospitals and clinics prioritizing Covid infected patients and very little provision made for those patients with chronic illnesses, especially tuberculosis and HIV, which have a very high incidence in South Africa. We must be better prepared for future pandemics; chronic diseases cannot be neglected again.
Various institutions believe a new wave will hit us in May, a variant of the same COVID-19, and it could be a variant that will not be affected by the current medication or vaccines, this is a challenge that the industry must be prepared for.
EF: South Africa showcased very successful collaborations. Could you elaborate on the impact of alliances in South Africa over these last few years?
BP: Given the history of South Africa, there has always been speculation in the public sector toward the private healthcare sector in terms of profiteering, particularly where multinational companies are concerned. The BUSA (Business Unity South Africa) collaboration exceeded all our expectations. Many business sectors came together and established B4SA and worked very closely with the Health Department; people worked for the institution without being paid to assist the government distribution of vaccines. The Solidarity Fund was set up, and billions of rand went into the fund to help the government buy PPE and other required equipment. An important aspect of this collaboration is that as the government implements the nationalized insurance, they will be able to look back and see the substance of the private sector, which makes me happy. The second level of collaboration was within the private sector; generally, we guard intellectual property and believe in intellectual property protection, whereas the government has tried to bring about compulsory licensing. Both South Africa and India are trying to get the WTO to adopt a waiver of intellectual property for Covid-19 vaccines, medication, and medical devices. While that is ongoing, we see how voluntary licensing has worked between Aspen Pharma Care and J&J, first filling vials with ready-made vaccines and sending them out. Due to the collaboration, Aspen can now manufacture in its Port Elizabeth facility, adding their name to the vaccine. Then there is Biovac, based in Capetown, and our government has part ownership in Biovac. The collaboration between Biovac and Pfizer will mean supplying vaccines to the rest of the continent this year. There is a unit in the University of Capetown known as H3D. In this drug development unit, many of our member companies have been collaborating to develop all sorts of drug entities. These collaborations are exciting.
EF: Can you tell us of any upcoming collaboration you find exciting or examples of alliances during the pandemic aside from the ones discussed?
BP: A considerable number of collaborations are occurring with highly interesting developments and goals. MSD has some products that they have allowed generic companies to manufacture under license and is an example of the new kind of collaborations we are beginning to see. It also shows that South Africa should allow voluntary licensing. Natural collaborations will proceed, and companies in our country will be empowered to produce vaccines.
EF: How can we leverage the lessons learned from the pandemic going into the future?
BP: The pharma industry and the private sector will benefit from the government working with our industry. All our efforts will be invested for it to be a successful collaboration in the future. The pharma industry will also focus on technology transfer and the capacity to develop and manufacture vaccines for the developing world, particularly South Africa. We would like to see our sector participating in a structure that will build and strengthen pandemic preparedness so we will never be taken by surprise again. We also want to be part of the decision-making when the time comes. We believe we can help our government.
EF: With so many members with different priorities, how do you balance them in the organization?
BP: I lead through a Secretariat, and there are three things we do for our member companies:
- We provide information from outside that has been analyzed and which our members can utilize in decision-making processes.
- We ensure they receive information on regulations, government news, or anything that impacts the pharmaceutical business.
- Internally we try to make them understand that even though all companies have trade secrets, they should allow us to act and show the very good things they do. It is not just about profits. As an industry, we aim to help build the economy. We commissioned a "footprint study" that outlined the pharma industry's economic contribution to South Africa a few years ago.
EF: How do you see the role of the pharma industry in recovering and developing the economy?
BP: We are an industry that employs highly qualified people, doctors, people qualified in biopharmaceutics, and scientists. We increasingly work with academic institutions, and graduates participate in programs in our companies that later become employable in the same company or the industry. We aim to be good corporate citizens who are seen as deserving of being invited to the policy-making table of society as a whole.
EF: Could you elaborate on the role of R&D in South Africa?
BP: South Africa has exceptional clinical research facilities. South Africa currently has 350 clinical trials going on. The diversity of the population helps study the effects of a drug on all population groups. Clinical trials allow for research and development and are the way to open the pipeline that leads to generic medicines, making them more affordable. Without clinical trials, we could not have generics in the pipeline.
EF: How do you see the future of healthcare information and education from a patient's perspective?
BP: Of course, there is digitalization but for years there has been telemedicine, an example is that of an X-ray picture that can be sent to a specialist who sends back the results to the doctor to then inform the patient. There is also the need to have automated systems that will allow for less human error in the pharma industry, which can have consequences for patients and companies. Digitization is in great use in the supply chain area to enable faster decision-making and more efficient operations. The manufactured medications become more affordable when companies identify the cost inefficiencies in the system. It helps the interactions of suppliers and manufacturers, suppliers and distributors, exchanging vital information instantly. IT is already important, but it will become more so in communication. For over two years now, we have been working virtually, and we still do not see much reason to spend a lot of time in the office, as technology is efficient, effective and enhances productivity from a time-saving point of view. IT and general digitization go hand in hand, and the pandemic accelerated that process.
EF: 90% of multinational pharmaceutical companies use South Africa as their regional headquarters. How do you see South Africa's role as a healthcare hub?
BP: Sub-Saharan Africa is close communication and distance to South Africa; when people travel to Europe or the US from central Africa, they usually travel via South Africa. In the same way, operations are easily run from South Africa, and the regional offices are based here. The pharma industry also has health travel or travel medicine. People come for specific operations and spend time in the country; some hospitals accept them to recuperate while enjoying a holiday.
EF: Is there any final message you would like to share with our readers?
BP: South Africa is beginning to be seen as a vaccination manufacturing hub, not only because of the collaborations, we have other bodies such as the AMA, the African Medicines Authority, which collaborates with the WHO, and have identified vaccine manufacturers in hubs such as Algeria, Ghana, and South Africa. There are many regional and country collaborations that work based in South Africa. I am proud that we are starting to be a self-sufficient hub, as it is something from which the whole continent can benefit. Being self-sufficient is integral.
EF: What would you like to celebrate by the end of 2022?
BP: The first batch of vaccines manufactured in South Africa and exported to the African continent and other parts of the world is a factor to celebrate. South Africa has been involved in a vaccine that acts against smallpox, whooping cough, and hepatitis B, in total covering six children's illnesses. This is manufactured by Biovac and is huge in vaccination programs. By the end of the year, I hope we will be supplying vaccines for Covid-19 and others to the rest of the continent. I would like to see collaboration between the government and the private sector flourish and differences evaporate.