Cape Bio Pharms is using biotechnology to manufacture Covid-19 proteins in plants. These proteins, called antigens, are used in rapid diagnostic test kits that detect antibodies against the virus in a person’s blood, indicating whether they have been exposed to the virus.
The plant-based expression platform is ideal for being able to produce a whole range of proteins very quickly and cheaply, said Belinda Shaw, the founder and CEO of Cape Bio Pharms.
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“We got the gene sequence (of Covid-19), which was released in the public domain from China. With our consultant, Markus Sach in Germany, we finally got that into our vector, which enabled it to be put into our plants, which enabled us to produce what’s called an antigen,” said Shaw.
This antigen, the SARS-CoV-2 protein, is the spike protein that sits on the outside of the Covid-19 virus. This antigen is used in the rapid test kits. If a person has Covid-19 antibodies in their blood, they will bind with the antigens in the test kit and trigger a positive response reading.
But these test kits won’t be rolled out on mass scale in South Africa just yet.
According to Shaw, the test kit manufacturers are struggling to secure a supply of positive serum, blood from Covid-19 positive people, to test whether the kits work and are still waiting on approval from the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority.
But the Cape Town-based company has its sights set on even bigger goals – making their own vaccines and therapeutics.
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“All of these proteins that we are making currently, the antigens as well as the antibodies that we have in the pipeline, the antigens could be vaccines, the exact same protein could be a vaccine,” said Tamlyn Shaw, director of Cape Bio Pharms.
The antibodies could be used in therapeutics, which could be even more essential than a vaccine, said Tamlyn.
“A therapeutic would basically neutralise the virus from entering your cells, the antibodies would bind to the outside of the virus, it would then not be able to enter your cells. So, for people who are in critical condition, this could be really helpful,” she said.
However, according to Tamlyn, the level of compliance, with which to make these proteins, is what prevents them from manufacturing their own therapeutics and vaccines.
“You would need a Current Good Manufacturing Process (CGMP) facility, which we currently don’t have,” she said. “Basically, all of these proteins could be therapeutics or vaccines, but we would need to up our compliance to get there.”
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Belinda said that, unfortunately, “Africa will always be at the end of the queue” when it comes to receiving vaccines and therapeutics.
“It’s enough now. We have the capability, we have the expertise, we have incredibly clever people, to be able to ensure security of our own supply of pharmaceuticals,” she said.
According to Belinda, they are “holding thumbs” to hear about funding that will allow them to take the next steps in building up their compliance level, which will allow them to move from diagnostic proteins to producing vaccines and therapeutics.
“The business of having to import all this stuff should be, hopefully, almost a thing of the past,” she said.