U.S. billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a transplant surgeon and businessman who owns the Los Angeles Times newspaper, announced that he will commit $210 million to help produce COVID-19 vaccines in his native South Africa.
Soon-Shiong, who also runs ImmunityBio, a biotech company that develops products that strengthen people’s immune systems, said his business and philanthropic foundation would donate the money. It will be used to deliver vaccine-producing technology and biological therapies that can be exported around the continent.
“Not only do we have the science, we have the human capital and the capacity and the desire,” Soon-Shiong said of South Africa during an international meeting on the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.
Soon-Shiong, 68, said he hopes the transferred technology also can be used to fight other diseases in the country, including schistosomiasis, a parasitic infection common in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to a report by British newspaper The Independent.
Earlier this year, ImmunityBio signed a deal with the BioVac Institute, a state-backed South African vaccine company, to manufacture an experimental COVID-19 vaccine that is undergoing clinical trials in the U.S. and South Africa, according to The New York Times.
There are fewer than 10 vaccine distributors in Africa, based in Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia. But most of those businesses handle packaging and labeling rather than manufacturing.
“They are so tired of standing behind the queue,” Soon-Shiong told South African news website BusinessTech. “You need your own self-sufficiency to be able to control your own destiny.”
Soon-Shiong’s announcement came as North Cape and Free State provinces experienced a third wave of infections, and health officials tried to speed up vaccinations. By late May, South Africa had vaccinated nearly 500,000 of its 1.2 million health care workers and began adding elderly residents to its vaccination campaign, The Associated Press reported.
Soon-Shiong also wants to bring together a coalition of donors, governments and companies to ensure that new vaccines are developed in Africa and can be manufactured in appropriate quantities. Details of the coalition are expected to be announced in July. He has been in contact with Aspen Pharmacare, Africa’s largest drugmaker and local manufacturer of a COVID-19 vaccine.
“There’s no question there is a great unmet need; now it’s time to bring together the resources,” Soon-Shiong told BusinessTech. “We have to go to places like the World Bank and the World Trade Organization and even entities in the U.S. to say it’s in your self-interest to help fund this.”
Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council, welcomed news of Soon-Shiong’s commitment.
“I guess he wants to give something back,” Gray told BusinessTech. “He is a doctor, he was trained in South Africa and he wants to do something worthwhile.”
Soon-Shiong was born in Port Elizabeth, a coastal town recently renamed Gqeberha, to Chinese parents. He studied in Johannesburg and the University of British Columbia in Canada before settling in Los Angeles, where he also owns a share of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team.
He began amassing a fortune after inventing the cancer drug Abraxane.
Soon-Shiong said ImmunityBio’s vaccine targets the nucleocapsid protein, which is less prone to mutations and also could be administered in capsule form.
“COVID unfortunately is here to stay. I think of COVID as cancer, and we have to address it with eyes wide open,” he told BusinessTech. “The good news about COVID is it’s opened up scientific interrogation at levels we’ve never seen.”