South Africa | Wits, Biovac to develop skills capacity to produce viral vectored vaccines

The University of the Witwatersrand's Antiviral Gene Therapy Research Unit has partnered with partly state-owned bio-pharmaceutical company Biovac to develop skills capacity to produce viral vectored vaccines.

The Wits team will assist with building specialist skills capacity within Biovac to generate engineered viruses that may be used as Covid-19 and other vaccines, explained the unit's Professor Patrick Arbuthnot.

"We have confidence that the collaboration will facilitate an enhanced capability and readiness for future production of active pharmaceutical ingredient/drug substances for vaccines targeted at viruses such as SAR-CoV-2 in South Africa," he said on Wednesday.

"If successful, it will be a good example of how leveraging South African partnerships to tap into specialist resources can address South Africa's preparedness for future disease outbreaks. It will also be an endorsement of the government's investment in basic research in South Africa."

Biovac CEO Dr Morena Makhoana said South Africa "desperately needs to build capability to manufacture viral vaccines from scratch rather than importing the API [active pharmaceutical ingredient]".

According to Makhoana, Biovac had "built capability in formulation and filling of vaccines and this partnership, utilising the skills transfer from Wits, is an excellent start to building the know-how to produce viral vectored vaccines"

"It's part of Biovac's reverse integration strategy towards building end-to-end vaccine manufacturing capability."

The Wits/South African Medical Research Council Antiviral Gene Therapy Research Unit has specialised expertise in advancing gene therapy for viral infections, Wits Commercial Enterprise (WCE) said in a statement.

"Viruses can be genetically engineered for gene therapy to treat genetic diseases, viral infections, develop vaccines and boost immunity. Wits' team specialises in the engineering, propagation and assay of adenoviruses, which, as carriers (vectors) of genes encoding immunogenic proteins, are gaining favour in the production of viral vectored vaccines, including vaccines against Covid-19."

Arbuthnot said their team's ability to "engineer, propagate, purify and assay the engineered viruses is a highly specialised technology".

"To the best of our knowledge, the Wits/SAMRC facility is the only one with expertise in this technology in the country, and perhaps the continent."

According to the university-owned WCE, viral vector-based vaccines were different from most conventional vaccines as they used the body’s cells to produce antigens.

"The modified virus is capable of carrying the genetic code for the antigen into many different types of cells, including those of humans, which are then instructed to make large amounts of antigen. This triggers an intended immune response to fight the pathogen, for example, SARS-CoV-2.

"The genetic material of the virus, DNA in the case of adenoviruses, is modified by removing some of the viral genes," explained Arbuthnot.

"These are replaced with the DNA coding of an immunity-causing protein such as the spike protein of the SARS Coronavirus-2 that causes Covid-19. The virus itself is harmless and by stimulating cells to produce antigens, can safely promote an immune response.

"As a safety precaution engineered viruses are replication-incompetent. This means that they cannot produce new viruses in a person receiving the vaccine and they can only proliferate in a laboratory-controlled setting where the deficiencies of the engineered virus are complemented in the cells producing the virus."

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