Read the Conversation

EF: 2020 was the year of diagnostics, 2021 the year of vaccines; what do you think 2022 will bring?

MM: In the developed world, big pharma started developing the vaccine in 2020, and 2021 was the year of the vaccine roll-out and the beginning of manufacturing in emerging markets. 2022 will be a reality check because we now have vaccines and a lot of capacity to manufacture from big pharma and developing countries. From an industrial and manufacturers' standpoint, the issues and supply and demand are not as big. Hesitancy and not reaching the proper coverage is also another issue but has the potential to be turned around. Here in South Africa, we are only at 50% of coverage, which is part of the reality check. The government must deal with issues such as doses that are about to expire; the virus is still here, and with all the variants, Covid has not been completely resolved but time is the greatest teller, and with time we will know how stable or unsettled the virus is. 2022 will be a reality check.  

EF: You mentioned manufacturing and industrialization. Did you experience disruptions in supply-demand during 2020 and 2021, and how did you overcome those issues?

MM: In 2021, there was a massive demand for doses from African countries and governments to manufacture. We partnered with Pfizer and were involved in the local roll-out of vaccines. Biovac, together with DSV, did the distribution of vaccines; at first, we had a steep learning curve due to the cold chain involved and having to supply a huge demand. There is always a challenge in situations with swing factors where we are forced to pick and trust. It is similar to when a natural disaster happens, and it is difficult to access a location with food and basics in significant demand. Then suddenly, there is an oversupply of food or medicines, only to find most of it has expired. The pandemic is one such phenomenon. The deal with Pfizer provided a balance and an opportunity to tackle these problems and prevent severe experiences.  

EF: What role do you think vaccines have played in making people more aware of their health and returning to care and diagnostics?

MM: We have learned quite a few lessons from vaccines. In the developed world, flu is probably the most widely used example for taking a vaccine, but vaccines have always been solutions to a troubling context, and they helped with the pandemic. Indeed, from a public health perspective, and for those who are not vaccine-hesitant, their beliefs are highlighted and boosted. Covid-19 vaccines targeted adults, exposing the challenges of getting adults to healthcare. Men are reluctant to get healthcare, mainly due to stigma, which is not the case with women, and this information was under the radar until the pandemic struck. Covid-19 vaccines have shown us that we still need to understand the adult preventative market, particularly concerning vaccines, and although Covid has helped, we still have a way to go. There is work to be done in behavioural sciences; queues in many countries were short-lived, essentially speaking of people's behaviours. An example of behaviour was how vaccines picked up when Macron said restaurants could only be entered vaccinated. A lesson from the pandemic is that healthcare and behavioural sciences need to come closer and embrace a preventative approach.

We are one pocket of the medi-chain in an ecosystem, each pocket having its importance and must do its job for us to succeed. We must diagnose and find the origin of the virus to develop vaccines, but we can only do that with available tools of genomic surveillance, which tells us how the virus is changing and so create better vaccines than the current ones. Diagnostics, therapeutics, or medicines cannot be neglected; vaccines are not 100% efficient as they wain and need boosters. A result of the pandemic is that health systems are strengthening; something similar occurred when Ebola struck a few African countries. More robust health systems are great but not ideal in specific settings, our hospitals dealt with a lot. We usually look at diagnostics, treatment, and clinical trials, but underlying health issues must be looked at.

EF: Do you think partnerships and collaborations will contribute significantly to growth in the sector?

MM: Collaborations are usually done across governments and countries. We operate in silos, each doing what needs to be done, and every so often, there is an inconvenient discussion between parties. The pandemic made sense of what could be possible between industry and government working in partnership. Some of the governments of developed countries put their money at risk collaborating with big pharma to bring some products in, something that typically wouldn't happen, proving that the left-hand needs the right hand for a partnership to happen. In South Africa, we experienced an exciting partnership: the Solidarity Fund, where big business set up a strictly governed transparent fund, and the money was a response to the pandemic, buying PPE material, and much more. It was a successful collaboration between the public and private sectors, bringing them closer together and it is important to not go back to the silos. I was part of a committee set up by the Minister of Health, which I have since left, but it was enjoyable working with different government representatives and the industry. We need to find forums where we interchange ideas and talk to avoid going back to our silos. More doors and networks have been opened; we have spoken to more people and never worked so intimately with the government. As an individual company, we will continue to leverage partnerships and the attention Africa is getting. We were the first to work on African vaccine manufacture, and now it is a hot topic, a buzz, and people are willing to listen. We are in a fundraising mode, Biovac is raising a hundred million dollars, and we are not there yet, but the discussions would have taken much longer or wouldn't even have started if it weren't for the pandemic.  

People now realize there is a need for partnerships in Africa, and that is something we can leverage so that we don't go back to silos.  

EF: What could be Biovac's role in creating a healthcare hub for a more self-reliant Africa?  

MM: Healthcare hubs are essential, and I think South Africa should be a healthcare hub. Silicon Valley is a technology hub; the ecosystem has been leveraged, entrepreneurs go there, and the East Coast is also a hub. Singapore is a hub for biotechnology and manufacturing in Asia, as is South Korea. It is important not to dilute the effort, a concentration of healthcare will get hubs going, and South Africa has great potential to be an emerging market hub. Capetown, for example, has the potential to become a mini-hub. Amazon is setting up infrastructure, and Afrigen is also starting up. This means skills and investment come and stay in the region for Africa to grow and develop. Many African graduates go to Europe, Oxford, or Harvard. They are brilliant and skilled, and having a hub gives them a reason to return. We can make a hub in South Africa; the ecosystem has already been generated and exists.  

EF: Biovac has grown significantly; what are the key factors contributing to the growth?

MM: Biovac does not have many resources; our primary resource is our people and the culture we have worked on and fostered. When resources are scarce, the centre must be solid and have an internal capacity because when people partner with Biovac, they ultimately deal with Biovac's technical people. Our internal culture must be strong enough to deal with other big companies; it shows confidence to be transparent about what we know. We work well because the tension level within the company is very low, and we are a real community. It's a good culture because we don't take or pay the highest bills, and we do our job successfully. Biovac is a specialized vaccine company, which means we are deep in biologicals, science is costly, and we don't know when the returns will come. We are into innovation and product development with limited resources, so we invest in developing products ourselves and try and match that with manufacturing. We need to be close to the customer to market our products; we are a manufacturer and a distributor, which is fairly unique. Most companies are not involved in distributing their products, but this allows us to understand the customers we supply. We have knowledge that is unique; in vaccines, we know about the coverage and why a specific region is not vaccinated compared to another. We are a small company, but we are involved end-to-end in the value chain, and this is why people come knocking on our door for manufacturing and product development. We are talking with a philanthropic organization to develop an Africa-specific product, which is the specialist nature we stand for.  

EF: What would be your advice to other business leaders to attract investors and create collaborations?  

MM: Our field has only recently become an appealing industry. We have done a lot of under-the-surface work that has now emerged. A lesson learned is not to give up when times are tough, remain true to our purpose, hustle, and never give up. It is what we did, and it is my advice to others. Secondly, partnerships are necessary for our industry, even though they can mean compromise. Biovac exists because of partnerships, and it's essentially what we have done. We have partnerships with the East and the West, from Cuba to India; we work with Pfizer, Sanofi, and local universities. What works for Europe and the US may not necessarily work for Africa, and we need to create a blend that works for us. There are lessons we can take from the US and convert and adapt them to our local means for them to work. We create our own blend and make it work through belief and perseverance. We are passionate about what we do; it's what gets me up every morning.  

EF: What would you be most proud of achieving in 2022?

MM: We are chasing some technology deals. We haven't signed anything yet, but they will significantly move the needle for Biovac, allowing us to be a more international company in our profile. It is my number one priority for the year, although we have other projects in the pipeline which are non-Covid projects and are important. We have been involved in routine vaccines pre-pandemic, and we have gone back to the basics of what keeps the industry alive: routine vaccines. We want to take a step up from a pre-Covid perspective. Our lifeline is routine vaccines, Covid changed that, but we can't focus solely on Covid.  

EF: Could you elaborate on your technology transfer deals and how will they affect Biovac?

MM: Up to now, Biovac has struck a partnership with Sanofi and two partnerships with Pfizer. We are now entering a new phase of Biovac 2.0 which will have more extensive, more international facilities and search for more partnerships.

EF: Is there any final message you would like to share with our readers?

Africa has the capabilities; we still need to play catch-up, but we are not starting from zero, which is vital for people to know.

April 2022
South Africa