President Mokgweetsi Masisi is ending his year on a high note after recently securing commitments from a Los Angeles-based multibillionaire for fast-tracking development of vaccine production in Botswana. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI reports
Patrick Soon-Shiong, a South African-born multibillionaire based in the US, is vowing to move quickly beyond the agreement he signed recently with Botswana and speedily establish vaccine manufacturing in the country.
While well-meaning Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) have been signed before with little ground or progress made after that, Soon-Shiong has said he intends to have a manufacturing facility operational at the Botswana Digital and Innovation Hub’s Icon Building by 2026. The facility will produce vaccines for COVID-19, cancer as well as next generation cell-based immunotherapies.
“When we talk about speed, the World Health Organisation was saying 2040, here you say 2036, but we want to talk to 2026 and you will have a manufacturing facility,” Soon-Shiong said at the MoU signing on December 14. “Within the next 24 hours, we have a very senior meeting happening with your scientific and medical leadership to bring the first two most important vaccines into trials in Botswana. “We’re bringing both Baylor (College of Medicine) and IDRI (Infectious Disease Research Institute) as well as top scientists and technology so that protocols can begin to be transferred as from tomorrow,” he said further.
The names being mentioned by Soon-Shiong indicate the rarefied level at which the deal is being played out. Baylor College of Medicine is one of the US’ foremost health sciences institutions, while IDRI is a Seattle-based biotech NGO focussed on research into infectious diseases.
Soon-Shiong, who is estimated to have a net worth of US$11.5 billion, is a bioscientist and inventor of a renowned drug for the treatment of lung, breast, and pancreatic cancer. He is the founder, chairman and CEO of NantWorks, a holding company with interests across healthcare, technology science and others. One of these subsidiaries is ImmunityBio which sealed the deal with Baylor and IDRI towards the “development of a safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccine”.
The deal with Botswana will involve transfer of the science and technology to Botswana, targeting rollout regionally, continentally and eventually globally.
The deal is a scoop for Masisi as Soon-Shiong had been searching out partners for the African rollout.
The two men initially met during Masisi’s trip to the US in September, where Soon-Shiong expressed interest in setting up in Botswana.
In a video call set up for the virtual MoU signing, the two men appeared to have built a warm friendship, exchanging pleasantries and sharing observations about empowering Africa through technology transfer.
“This has been a day that we have been looking forward to as I met with His Excellency in Los Angeles and it’s very clear to me the strength, leadership and commitment to his people,” Soon-Shiong said. “I’m African. I was born in South Africa and Africa is in my blood. “I understand the hardships but I’m ashamed in a way at the lack of humanity by countries that can and should help and I understand that if not now, when. “I have been blessed in the sense that I was born in Apartheid and suffered through it, but had an incredible education and came to this country. Through nothing but hard work and determination, I was able to establish resources and that blessing was built to bring to countries who need it,” he said.
Besides vaccine manufacturing, Soon-Shiong’s deal with Botswana also includes improving health management systems and sustainable water generation at Lobu Farm as well as the development of the Maun Science Park. The deal with the billionaire ticks many boxes for Masisi, who has championed the small stock farm at Lobu and the adoption of higher technology in finding solutions for the country development, also known as the “digital transformation agenda”.
The vaccine agreement in particular resonates with Masisi’s RESET agenda whose first priority is saving Batswana from COVID-19.
In the virtual MoU signing, Masisi was in high spirits, urging all the local and US partners involved in the deal to ensure its delivery.
“I’m elated and my heart is full of warmth from what I have heard from Pat (Soon-Shiong), what we saw on our visit and where we are now. “All this is scalable and transferable for humanity starting from southern Africa, then Africa and hopefully the rest of the world,” he said.
On Soon-Shiong’s commitment to fast-track the deal, Masisi was effusive.
“This is an electric moment. My heart is actually thumping. This is emotional; a promise and it’s done. “There’s a lot of promise in the sky and we are going to reawaken ourselves. “The literal translation of complete comfort and happiness from Setswana to English is ‘my heart is white’. “Thank you, thank you.”
Having faced strident criticism that his push for a knowledge-based economy is not delivering tangible results, Masisi goes into the new year having scooped for Botswana, an MoU that was much desired across the continent.
Soon-Shiong’s choice of Botswana for the project is seen as a victory for the country’s ability to attract high-tech investment over continental powerhouses that are usually chosen by investors.
The billionaire’s commitment to hit the ground running and work with local partners to establish by 2026 also answers criticism that noble MoUs often gather dust after signing.
“I love the speed. This is supersonic,” Masisi told Soon-Shiong in the virtual signing.