Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Fellows at the frontline in South Africa’s fight against COVID-19

Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Fellows at the frontline in South Africa’s fight against COVID-19

Testing is a critical in the fight against the spread of coronavirus. Led by Allan Gray Fellows Daniel Ndima and Dineo Lioma, CapeBio has answered the challenge with a kit providing results in just 65 minutes.

Testing is a pillar of any campaign against coronavirus, and not only because it identifies infected individuals. It also provides an idea of how the virus may be developing within the country – and, once scientists potentially understand its spread, government can plan resources accordingly.

 This is why the qPCR kits developed by CapeBio are hailed as a massive breakthrough, with critical implications for the country’s ability to weather the current crisis. As Daniel Ndima, CEO of CapeBio says, “The ability to obtain rapid test results allows us to gain a clearer picture of viral infections, so that we are able to introduce interventions with greater effectiveness.” This will remain important even after lockdown, as South Africa has a population of over 55 million people who will need to be monitored on an ongoing basis.

The culmination of a career

Ndima says that CapeBio’s innovation was a response to the massive disruptions created by the virus in South Africa. “One of our major challenges is our reliance on imported tests,” he explains. “Most countries are currently experiencing issues with supply and demand, which their respective governments are controlling with newly introduced trade regulations. This has caused delays in the delivery of imported testing kits and protective gears, and may impact on the delivery of vaccines once they have passed clinical trials.”

A scientist with a special interest in structural biology, Ndima says that the development of the kits represents a spinoff of the work he has dedicated the past 12 years of his life to. CapeBio already has an established reputation in this field, he adds, noting that the company has created a number of test kits with a reputation for reliability. “Our kits help pathologists isolate and identify a virus’s DNA or genetic material from an infected person. This makes it possible to detect the virus accurately in a laboratory.”

Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, CapeBio was heavily involved in the production molecular biology reagents, enzymes and kits which were used in universities as well as research councils and R&D companies in both South Africa and the United States. These kits were playing a vital role in helping scientists to study and understand the importance and function of certain genes in human beings, animals, microbes and plants.

However, CapeBio was awaiting validation from the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority before introducing its products to a broader user base, such as private and public pathology labs, as well as pharmaceutical companies. “The tests still had to be reformulated, validated and certified by this body for diagnostics of other diseases caused by deadly pathogens such as HIV, TB, malaria and genetic related diseases,” Ndima informs. “We were looking into formulating our current products for these purposes, amongst others.”

Then came the advent of COVID-19 – “and out of patriotism and national duty to our country, we decided to expedite the local manufacture of the kits,” Ndima says. He adds that when news of the devastation wrought on China and Europe by the coronavirus hit our press, he knew it was just a matter of time until we faced the same battle. Our fight would be even harder, though, because of our heavy reliance on imported biotechnology products. Thus, one of CapeBio’s goals is to upscale production, once the necessary permits and certificates have been obtained, so that there are no kit shortages either in South Africa or the rest of the continent.

As a locally manufactured product, the qPCR could mitigate this reliance on overseas imports, ensuring that testing reagents could be accessed quickly and without a wait. They are also more affordable than international products. Perhaps most importantly, however, CapeBio’s product makes it possible to obtain test results in just 65 minutes, compared to the usual three hours.

 Now in the assessment and validation phase, the test kits will be ready for rollout by the beginning of June.

Curbing the crisis

While most of the country’s efforts to this point have been focused on #FlatteningTheCurve, Ndima points out that the impact of the crisis on our economy is just as concerning as the toll on our healthcare systems. He cites Euler Hermes’ observation in the latest Global Insolvency Report that business insolvencies were expected to rise in 2020 as the country fought a protracted growth slowdown, with growth expected to reach only 0% in 2020 and 0.7% in 2021. In fact, we’d already started to see the fallout: in 2019, business insolvencies were up by 6%, and this number would have risen by a further 4% if business had continued as usual. But, of course, it did not – and so, with lockdown taking a significant toll, we should brace for a hefty increase in these numbers. Along with this comes the anticipation of structural reform from state-owned companies, as well as retrenchments. Says Ndima, “We don’t know if this is the right time for these highly contested measures by labour forces, or if the right time will ever come. But there is no doubt that we are facing a serious health and economic threat that will leave us a changed nation.” His belief is that, to meet our changed circumstances, global economic machinery and conduct also need to evolve. “It’s not just about holding on to the 4IR capabilities that will keep whatever little fire is left to support our nation; we also need to rethink, reimagine and morph into a nation with businesses that can survive global catastrophes of this nature going forward.”

With this in mind, Ndima says that entrepreneurs would do well to consider their offerings and tactics so they are better suited to a drastically changed ‘post coronavirus’ world. One of the hallmarks of this world is collaboration, he notes – as, indeed, CapeBio has benefited enormously from the opportunities for collaboration it gained as part of the Department of Science and Innovation’s COVID-19 response team, where experts from universities and R&D centres around the country have been give a platform to share ideas and capabilities in the search for viable solutions. This body has been formed to ensure that the country has the right tools to combat the outbreak and its associated impact on the health system – and enough of them, Ndima explains. But it’s also about sharing the resulting insights with knowledge systems creators from academia, and vice versa.

Biotechnology and healthcare are obvious sectors where future opportunities may be present, but entrepreneurs may also find that they can add value by providing products and services that support these industries. That said, Ndima is particularly enthusiastic about the potential of the biotechnology space. “This is an area that is largely misunderstood in South Africa. Compare this to a country like the United States, where it essentially underpins the economy because it covers so many areas, from therapeutics to pharmaceuticals and diagnostics. If we achieved the same kind of focus on the sector, we could start to play a bigger role on the global stage.” More than this, we could ensure that South Africa was better geared not only to overcome the challenges created by the current crisis, but to ensure that the country’s economy and other resources are strong enough to withstand other disasters which may come our way.

“This is the right time to look to biotechnology, but you don’t need to do it alone. Other industry members are here to help, in the prevailing spirit of collaboration,” says Ndima. CapeBio is more than willing to step into this role, he adds, promising other Allan Gray Fellows that if they answer this call, his team will do all they can to help them realise their objectives.

“This could be an opportunity for businesses to reimagine their offerings during and post COVID-19 outbreak. All of us need to go back to the drawing boards, rethink tactics, collaborate and rebuild, using the benefits offered by 4IR tools to create high impact businesses. This global pandemic is presenting us with serious health and economic threats, but I think it could present us with stimulated business mindsets going into the new world – so that, hopefully, we can build businesses rooted in kindness to all our people and a sense of responsibility and patriotism to our nation,” he concludes.