Read the Conversation
EF: Could you share what have been the lessons learnt over this last very atypical year?
MM: For those of us involved in the vaccine and infectious diseases world the pandemic was not such a surprise, although none of us expected it so soon. We have seen these situations on a smaller scale, with new viruses such as Zika virus and Ebola, among others and every year a new one appears. In 2009 we had an almost pandemic similar to SARS COVID 2, but what surprised me the most was the speed with which Covid developed and the amount of destruction it has caused in its wake. The financial crisis it caused was on a par to the 1918 pandemic affecting most of the world. 2020 will remain in our memories mainly as catching us unawares. Regarding BIOVAC we are a very young company and have responded favorably to the original disruption and impact caused by Covid and I am happy to say we learned through the process and had the capacity to respond and deliver. We were fortunate to be able to work through the pandemic and deliver on all previous commitments.
EF: From a managerial perspective how did you manage to achieve business continuity?
MM: I faced the crisis without panic, it was a problem of course and it needed to be tackled but I was composed knowing positively it was the only way to act. As a leader I had to calm others, for them to use their energy on the crisis and on the next step needed to be taken. We went into lockdown with many worries but faced each necessary outstanding issue as it came to us, solving each challenge as it appeared, always trying to look forward. It was about facing the immediate future and focusing on the “now”. We made many tactical decisions –owing to the fact that the level of disruption was both fast and exponential.
EF: In your opinion will there be challenges in the access and delivery of vaccines in the region?
MM: Yes, I think it will be complicated and there always are media-government issues. It is clear that pandemic vaccines are not going to be developed on the continent, the pace and the capacity needed for their development cannot be done in terms of the development of the vaccine. The capabilities Africa has in terms of formulation and fulfillment is obviously something we want to utilize to respond to the pandemic, actually we are still in that mode today. The governments with smaller budgets and that haven’t foreseen paying a deposit on vaccines before the end of 2020 have come into a lot of backlash from the media, and there is already blood on the floor even though the Pfizer vaccine was only licensed in December. The vaccine distribution will be a challenge, 50% will be about having the money to distribute and the other 50% about the level of information there is in the region to distribute.
EF: What do you think will be South Africa and Africa's biggest challenges engaging in the distribution of the vaccine in this magnitude?
MM: The more information I get from the infectious areas the less concerned I am. It is of course a difficult vaccine to handle in terms of the cold chain but with careful planning it can be done in our region as the vaccine can remain in their special insulated boxes in a cold chain for as long as 30 days and with capital planning, 30 days in a pandemic is a very long time indeed to get the vaccine to remote areas and of difficult access. The distribution will be doable from a practical point of view, but our challenge will be keeping the cold chain and relying on our existing resources as not all facilities have sterilized cold chains to hold the product at -8ºC as in the case of the Pfizer vaccine. We are still waiting for the finer details but at a central level, we hope the holding stock can be centralized in a secure manner and quite quickly redistributed mainly because the population really needs the vaccine. It is also important to note that the private sector has participated in the coming up and providing of solutions.
EF: You were quoted this morning in Reuters as reportedly importing stocking and distributing 1.5 million doses of vaccine. What do you want BIOVACs role to be during this pandemic?
MM: BIOVAC is an expert on tech transfer on South African vaccines but we see ourselves as playing four important roles in the sector and country:
- Logistics: Assist the government in logistics and execution of the vaccines -this is our everyday work which we can do with our eyes closed. We will be handling 1.5 million doses for emergency and healthcare workers, doing it as fast and efficiently as possible, regardless we will respond to any challenge.
- Our local manufacturing definition is slightly different to others in the sector, licensing and contract manufacturing involves for us much longer client and partner conversations than the usual contracting with clear technical differences where we outsource. We focus on local manufacturing from its formulation right through to the finishing touches.
- Vaccine Trials: we are involved with overseas partners, doing vaccine trials to develop products overseas and is a key element –albeit small- because I am hoping there will be a relation with the Covid vaccine as we are working on the current variant. There are some of us behind the scenes working on different technologies for a Covid vaccine, some quite exciting. Clinical trials are beginning soon and bode very well for the future.
- Planning for the future: looking to extend our capabilities to respond with a much larger capacity, we have to plan for what comes and we want to be prepared and not caught unawares after the pandemic ends.
EF: With the lockdown, there has been restricted access to vaccines making it difficult to vaccinate for preventable diseases, especially in children. What has been done in South Africa to alleviate this situation?
MM: Immunization was a worry especially as the government was investing all its resources in the pandemic, nobody was going to the facilities during lockdown either unless it was an emergency, of course, there was a period April and May 2020 where things came to a standstill and we were worried about its effects and what it would trigger for the future but fortunately the government also was aware of this issue so when lockdown began to get lax they ran a social mobilization campaign by radio and using the community communications to create awareness on immunization and we did see a rise in the demand to the point where some products have slightly exceeded demand and we are very happy to see that increase. Time and data will eventually tell us how big a disruption there has been.
EF: What do you look for in new partners for vaccines or for clinical trials?
MM: In vaccine partners, we look for complementarities. We need to know we can complement each other well so there must not be too much duplication and when we both want something from the other party it is when the model works the best. There are always issues to be worked through so complementarity is absolutely essential for the discussions to advance successfully. In some cases the longer the discussions are the better so one can really get to know one's partner and lay the foundation during the negotiations for the partnership so when the executive team takes over there is a better knowledge of each other. But basically, a successful partnership is all about complementarity.
EF: Looking back at this period, what would you like 2020 to be remembered for, and what are your expectations for 2021?
MM: From a sectorial and selfish point of view the vaccine industry -which was not well known- now has a much higher impact on the rest of the world. For example in access and equitability, the value of the vaccine could be worth a lot because of the savings it could have on the financial crisis and due to the general effect, it has on the economy. But its impact is so much higher as it has the power to restart the economic engine and unlock the future for humanity. In 2020 the world will be brought to a stop, and I am hoping that in 2021 will prove the value of what the vaccine has done, and what the sector has created. Vaccines were the only thing that moved the needle in 2020, in spite of other elements that assisted such as masks, sanitisers etc. I for one am very happy the industry has been on display and mobilized itself to solve a worldwide problem.