Plant-Based Vaccines in South Africa: UCT’s recent development

“Unlike traditional vaccines, plant-based vaccines are cheaper to produce, and they do not require the same level of infrastructure for production. This makes the innovation attractive and advantageous for developing countries with scarce resources, particularly in Africa.”

By Manoa Andriamiharisoa (Deputy Features Editor)

In September 2021, it was announced that scientists at UCT had made progress in a plant-based vaccine for COVID-19. This follows a proof of concept for producing proteins in plants from their technology platform.

According to Emmanuel Margolin, a postdoctoral scientist at the university, the process entails injecting a pathogen that naturally infects plants with foreign DNA under a vacuum, allowing the cells of the plants to produce the desired proteins. The conventional method of producing antigens in vaccines is through infection of mammalian cells in a laboratory, where a virus is injected into a cell and the cell is tricked into making copies of the antigen. The cells are then incubated and later purified before being packed into vials and kept in the cold for transportation and storage.

Unlike traditional vaccines, plant-based vaccines are cheaper to produce, and they do not require the same level of infrastructure for production. This makes the innovation attractive and advantageous for developing countries with scarce resources, particularly in Africa. Vaccines manufactured through plants can also overcome barriers to distribution since traditional vaccines have to be kept at a certain temperature, hence they are not always able to reach rural communities with low levels of infrastructure.

Plant-based vaccines are currently not being commercialised for human use yet, but the market for vaccines manufactured by plants is expanding. Medicago, a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company in Canada is currently in its third phase of clinical trials for a plant-based COVID-19 vaccine. In South Korea, the government has invested a whopping $13.5 billion in research on this innovation. In South Africa, the work done by Margolin and the Biopharming Research Unit at UCT has resulted in patent applications to produce vaccines against COVID-19 and novel viruses in the future. Estimates indicate the market for plant-based vaccines will increase by $560 million, from $40 million to $600 million, in the next seven years.

Despite the potential that plant-based vaccines can have in a country like South Africa, the innovation requires capital investment in production facilities, as well as funding for further research. According to Margolin, the pandemic has cut funding towards plant-based research which should be “a project of its own” rather than “[a] project being run in the background”.

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