Read the Conversation

EF: What motivates you to keep pushing the boundaries and pursuing new challenges? 

PT: As an entrepreneur in the biological and conservative sciences, I am motivated by the rare combination of scientific expertise and an innovative drive. My focus on impactful work began early in my career as I sought to translate data and knowledge into tangible solutions. My passion lies in applied science with a clear purpose, and I am most fulfilled when I see the direct impact of my work on society. My pioneering spirit drives me to make or enable scientific breakthroughs and develop them into measurable, positive results. Although I acknowledge that enjoying complexity is one of my weaknesses, I am stimulated by challenging, multidimensional problems and thrive in high-energy environments. 

EF: What is your ambition for Afrigen, and what specific goals are you looking to pursue?  

PT: My vision for Afrigen involves two distinct dreams: one for the company and its impact on the world. The true value of our company lies in the jobs we can create and the sustainable impact we can make in our country. Reflecting on our progress since June 2021, we have made significant strides. In the past two years, we have built a vertically integrated team in the vaccine space. From a group of only 20 people and a single lab, we have grown to a staff of 122 well-qualified specialized skilled individuals, boasting an unparalleled end-to-end vaccine facility on the continent. Despite being a small company, we have quadrupled in less than three years, a testament to our work quality. This success has allowed us to form close relationships with our team members, who remain integral to our growth and success. Building our ability to design and develop vaccines, take them through clinical trials, and manufacture them enables us to hire and transfer our technology and expertise to diverse local stakeholders, including unemployed individuals and university-trained professionals. As we move forward, my dream for Afrigen is to continue building and developing innovative platforms and products that meet the healthcare needs of the continent.  

Our focus on sustainability drives our ambition to play a role in producing 60% of the vaccines required by Africa by 2040, with a particular emphasis on combating neglected diseases such as TB, HIV, leprosy, and malaria. We aim for our end-to-end research and development entity to be recognized as a vital partner in creating positive change on the African continent, a vision we hope to realize within the next decade. We should focus on developing a multi-product platform rather than manufacturing a single product to achieve sustainable growth and local development. As a scientist and entrepreneur, I generate ideas for increased production while remaining mindful of sustainability. This approach has allowed our company to thrive in deep science while forming partnerships with countries such as Korea, Australia, USA and Brazil. 

It is important to note that Aspen and Biovac's joint capacity can manufacture more than 300 million vials. Both these entities are focusing on backward integrated strategies to address the challenge posed by the inadequate drug substance manufacturing capabilities in the country. The dependence on suppliers of active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) or drug substances to ensure sustainable manufacturing and to capture optimal value locally is a threat to sustainability. A highly skilled technical workforce is essential to establish a sustainable vaccine pipeline to ensure self-sufficiency in drug substance production in South Africa and beyond. This capability has been established in this boutique Cape Town-based company. Its success offers a model that could be replicated in other lower middle-income countries to address the limited access to essential healthcare products such as vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics. 

EF: In what other ways do you envision the utilization of mRNA beyond its current application in COVID-19 vaccinations? 

PT: Upon critical examination of mRNA and its alternate platforms, it is apparent that although the mRNA is 30 years old and was initially developed for therapeutic applications, the pandemic saw companies such as Moderna and BionTech pivot and transform it into a vaccine manufacturing platform. However, there are various types of mRNA, such as modified, circular, and self-amplifying mRNA, and not all have been successful in vaccine development. While the modified mRNA platform has been demonstrated to be effective during the COVID-19 pandemic, with only two vaccines authorized for human use, its sustainability could be improved and secured if challenges of thermostability, high cost of goods, and expensive vaccine manufacturing capital costs and lack of newly approved products are mastered. Therefore, the focus is on lowering the cost of goods and achieving affordable prices through partnerships, reducing the need for cold chain storage, and expanding the pipeline of candidate vaccines, including therapeutic vaccines such as for some of the viral induced cancers such as cervical cancer caused by HPV. We are working on the thermostability of the mRNA vaccine to reduce it from -20 to -80 degrees to a normal cold chain of -2 to -8 degrees (standard refrigeration temperatures). We are in partnership with two Belgian companies to reduce the dose cost to below $5 per dose.  

mRNA also shows promise in veterinary medicines, with work on veterinary vaccines underway it increases its value for a company such as Afrigen. Despite the challenges of mRNA as a modality, it is well-suited for fast-tracking vaccine development and has demonstrated its value in speed and precision for vaccine development and screening of multiple candidates. Its ability to run multiple products through one platform improves manufacturing processes. This platform-oriented approach is key to Afrigen's operations, which focuses on scientific and technological advancements, with the completion of our mRNA platform and further development of other bioprocessing platforms using microbial and yeast systems complemented by an adjuvant formulation platform. 

EF: How can we raise the importance of innovation in South Africa? 

PT: Investing in innovation is crucial for South Africa to achieve a vertically integrated economy that maximizes job creation, GDP contribution, foreign investment, intellectual property creation, and innovation, as well as developing a highly skilled workforce and optimal multipliers for socioeconomic development. While South Africa is a creative nation, innovation requires a system that takes a creative mind through a process to address unmet needs, solve problems, and create sustainable financial value. Despite the country's great universities and science space, our technological innovation record could be better due to the need for industrial pull. The veterinary vaccine sector needs improvement, and companies like ours are optimizing synergies and complementarity to build the industry. We aim to produce a drug substance or bulk vaccine which may be supplied to leading companies such as Aspen to fill and finish for the market. As a B2B company, we focus on serving other businesses rather than individual consumers. 

It is essential to explore two things to make healthcare more accessible and affordable. Firstly, it fosters partnerships providing the necessary know-how to reduce prices and scale production. Secondly, investing in Health is crucial. Creating partnerships and investing in Health is essential to produce drug substances at scale, making healthcare more affordable and accessible. 

EF: How can we raise awareness of the importance of investing in healthcare in South Africa?  

PT: With 25 years of experience in the biotech sector in South Africa, in 2008, others and I struggled to raise an even 100-million-rand venture capital fund to accelerate biotech innovation and invest in future businesses, similar to Silicon Valley or Boston innovation. However, by demonstrating sustainable market value, building the sector in the USA and other economies was easier. In the wake of COVID, Aspen, Biovac, and Afrigen were able to secure substantial funding from various sources to capitalize and de-risked investment and infrastructure development, creating a robust manufacturing platform. Localizing procurement is critical, and governments should assist local manufacturers with policy changes that will provide preferential procurement even if a premium of 15% for five years to local manufacturing is granted to build sustainably. The model of investing one Rand in local manufacturing in the pharmaceutical sector in 2010 could have yielded 13 South African Rands back into the economy, making it a worthwhile investment. Quality and safety are non-negotiable, and policy changes are needed to create a safe environment to nurture, foster and grow the industry. Working with GAVI, UNICEF, Welcome Trust, and Gates Foundation, we hope that commitments made to changing procurement rules to procure locally for the continent will be fully implemented Momentum is growing, and strong entities such as global health and local funders are increasingly realizing the importance of local procurement for global welfare. With off-take agreements from the Department of Health, we can invest in fully integrated API manufacturing entities in the country. We must reform the policy environment to create a competitive and safe investment landscape. 

EF: How are you choosing your partners? 

PT: Afrigen is fast becoming a center of excellence for global mRNA vaccine development and technology transfer, in partnership with MPP and WHO and the significant network of 15 partners from LMICs. Some of these include established vaccine manufacturers. Transferring the technology to these partners will diversify their platforms, expand their portfolios, and ensure the sustainability of the entities. The partner countries were chosen by the WHO, African Union, and member states in a consultation process to create capacity and capabilities for pandemic preparedness and sustainable vaccine supplies. Afrigen will continue to build partnerships and select future partners for our diverse platforms. We have an upcoming collaboration agreement to be signed with Australia and ongoing negotiations with four groups in the US and Belgium. We will choose countries with a market demand and a competitive advantage for human and veterinary vaccines.  

EF: As a successful healthcare leader in the industry, what three pieces of advice would you offer to the younger generation of South Africans seeking to follow a similar path? 

PT: To succeed in any field, possessing certain qualities that are not unique to the healthcare industry is essential. Rather, a "can-do" attitude is paramount to building a prosperous and thriving society. This approach is characterized by a determination to overcome obstacles and focus on finding solutions rather than dwelling on problems. When my team approaches me with a challenge, I always ask how we can achieve our objective rather than accepting defeat. Although this may only sometimes lead to success, maintaining a positive and proactive outlook is key. 

Equally important is the value of hard work. Achieving the impact, we desire requires dedication and perseverance rather than simply sleeping or waiting for opportunities to come our way. This often involves a willingness to take on tasks that may seem menial or outside our job descriptions, such as washing dishes or taking out the trash. We must be willing to do whatever is necessary to support the company's objectives at any given time. Ultimately, the success of any endeavor depends on teamwork and a shared sense of purpose rather than individual priorities. Our impact on South Africa will be transformative as we expand. By focusing on sustainable growth and local development, we are poised to make a meaningful and valuable contribution to the future of our country. 

As the global population continues to grow, so will the number of people living on the African continent. By 2030, it is estimated that 25% of the world's population will live on this continent, with an average age of just 19.5 years. To ensure these individuals can contribute to the global workforce, we must provide them with the skills and experience necessary to succeed. This requires effort, as many individuals may have never had workplace experience. However, the future of our planet depends on our ability to secure the future of work for these young people. Failure to do so will have disastrous consequences for the world. 

September 2023
South Africa