Positioning the Cape as Africa’s Pharma R&D Hub

In 2011, UCT Professor Kelly Chibale founded H3-D, Africa’s first Drug Discovery and Development Centre.   Within a year, a key project was named Project of the Year for 2012 by Medicines for Malaria Venture and resulted in the discovery of a novel chemical compound with the potential to affect malaria control and eradication. As a result, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation signed two partnership deals worth R370 million with the SA Medical Research Council and University of Cape Town (UCT) to develop new medicines, vaccines and other biotechnologies against HIV and Aids, tuberculosis (TB) and malaria.

This concentration of medical research capability at UCT and other institutions in the Western Cape, coupled with the need to develop drugs to address largely African diseases could position the Cape Town region as Africa’s medical research and pharmaceutical R&D hub. Much like Singapore’s Biomedical Sciences initiative launched in 2000 which attracted 30 leading biomedical companies and grew the sector by 30% in 2011, a focus on the sector could encourage multi-national companies to invest in Cape Town and create much needed jobs and a critical mass of African scientists with the capabilities of developing pre-clinical drug candidates.

While drug companies have been active across Africa for years mostly fighting infectious diseases, the commercial opportunity has not been fully grasped.  The African pharmaceutical market is expected to grow by 10.6% to $45 billion by 2020 and as the African middle-class grows and disease profiles change, the need for appropriate drugs will grow. Africa also needs to reduce its reliance on global pharmaceutical drugs and focus on developing medicines for African patients whose population is set to double by 2050.

H3-D has already developed a strategic partnership with drug giant, Novartis, and there’s an opportunity to expand this initiative to galvanising the collective brainpower of the Western Cape research institutes; bridging the gap between discovery and clinical strengths; and address regulatory issues as drug testing in SA take up to 12 months to get approval while in the EU it takes 1-2 weeks! The ultimate goal is to establish the first for-profit drug discovery company in Africa through a private-public venture, based at the Cape Health Technology Park at the Twin Rivers Urban Park in Ndabeni near Pinelands which is already home to SKA.

We have the opportunity to make Cape Town the African equivalent of what Singapore is to the Asian economy.  We need to seize the opportunity to address African health issues and employment challenges which the World Economic Forum estimates will run to 122 million new job seekers by 2023. We have an opportunity to make this city the destination of choice for researchers, developers and problem-solvers from South Africa, Africa and the world. Together we can take South Africa forward – let’s do it!

 This is from an original article, Seizing the opportunity to contribute and compete globally in pharmaceutical R&D by Chris Whelan and Prof Kelly Chibale featured in the Business Report – Cape Times, Star, Mercury, Pretoria News.

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