CAPE TOWN- South African-American businessman Patrick Soon-Shiong opened a new vaccine plant in Cape Town on Wednesday, intended to help his local NantSA company make COVID-19 shots in future and address the continent's lack of manufacturing capacity.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed a global lack of access to life-saving vaccines, particularly in Africa, where just about 10% of the population has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 compared to over half the world's population. 

"Africa should no longer be last in line to access vaccines against pandemics. Africa should no longer go cap in hand to the Western world, begging and begging for vaccines," said South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who attended the opening.

Soon-Shiong, who is also a medical doctor, will transfer technology and materials for RNA, adjuvant vaccine platforms and cell therapy from his California-based NantWorks to scientists in South Africa, where they will also work on vaccines targeting cancer, TB and HIV.

"We have now the capability to use the human capital of South Africans to build 21st century medicine," Soon-Shiong told Ramaphosa, as he entered one of two warehouses, currently empty, in the semi-industrial area of Brackenfell close to Cape Town.

Soon-Shiong said the opportunity existed to "literally airdrop" bioreactors, stockpiled at his American factories, into the buildings and create state-of-the-art biological manufacturing, with first production of vaccines seen later this year. To ensure a pipeline of skilled workers, Soon-Shiong has pledged 100 million rand ($6.5 million) for scholarships.

But health experts have warned that obstacles, including electricity and water shortages that hamper manufacturing processes, must be tackled before Africa can become self-reliant and wean itself off imported vaccines. 

Pharmaceutical firms, like Pfizer, as well as the World Health Organisation (WHO) have sought to bridge the gap in poorer countries' access to vaccines by upgrading existing production lines or developing new manufacturing hubs.

South Africa's Aspen Pharmacare makes Johnson & Johnson's COVID vaccine while Biovac, partly owned by the South African government, will start the final stages of production of Pfizer's shot later this year. Cape Town also hosts a WHO manufacturing hub that is trying to copy Moderna's mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.

Another one of Soon-Shiong's firms, ImmunityBio, is currently testing a novel coronavirus vaccine candidate in South Africa that looks at priming the body's soldier T cells to kill the coronavirus and prevent it replicating. ($1 = 15.3998 rand)

(Reporting by Wendell Roelf Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Bernadette Baum) ((; +27 21 461 3523))