By Wendell Roelf and Alexander Winning
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - A South African company part-owned by the government is in talks with the global COVID-19 vaccine distribution scheme and pharmaceutical companies to produce some of the vaccines the country needs to protect itself against the disease.
The Biovac Institute, a Cape Town-based joint venture between the government and private sector, could produce up to 30 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines per year, depending on the technology involved, Chief Executive Morena Makhoana told Reuters.
Depending on whether the vaccines require a one- or two-dose regimen, that could be enough for a quarter or half of South Africa's population.
"We need to look at who is likely to get to the finishing line and who has the technological fit," Makhoana said, when asked which vaccine candidate Biovac might partner with. "Discussions are happening and we are fairly confident that ... we will be able to clinch a deal."
The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), the foundation that co-leads the COVAX scheme alongside the World Health Organization and vaccines alliance GAVI, has identified Biovac as a potential drug product manufacturer but has not signed an agreement yet, a CEPI spokesman said.
Drug product manufacturing typically includes steps like vaccine formulation, filling and finishing of vials, labelling and packaging, he said.
The COVAX scheme aims to deliver 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine by the end of 2021. CEPI is reserving capacity with vaccine manufacturers worldwide so that goal can be met.
South Africa has submitted a non-binding confirmation of intent to participate in COVAX.
Makhoana said Biovac could not make "live virus" vaccines at this stage, precluding some vaccines being trailed in South Africa in partnership with Oxford University and Johnson & Johnson. He declined to name the companies Biovac was speaking to.
The Department of Science and Innovation, the ministry that manages the government's stake in Biovac, supports its ambitions because it wants to stimulate local manufacturing and limit the impact of vaccine procurement on the country's balance of payments, Director-General Phil Mjwara said.
Currently South Africa's government buys about 95% of the vaccines supplied annually by Biovac, covering diseases such as tuberculosis, cervical cancer and influenza, with the rest sold to countries in the rest of Africa.
In the past Biovac has partnered with companies like Pfizer and Sanofi.
(Reporting by Wendell Roelf and Alexander Winning; Editing by Tim Cocks and Elaine Hardcastle)