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South Africa’s Big Biotech Ambition

Posted on: 13 Oct 05


Biotechnology is seen as a key technology area for the future and like many other countries, South Africa is keen to develop its expertise in this field. The emphasis on biotechnology is certainly influenced to a large degree by the outstanding success of the US biotech industry – an economic feat that most other countries would like to emulate.

Like many other countries around the world South Africa is keen to develop its biotech capabilities. A vibrant biotech sector could have economic benefits and could also play a useful role in tackling diseases that predominantly affect South Africa but are currently underserved by the R&D efforts of multinational companies.


In order to harness any expertise it already possessed and develop those that it lacked South Africa realized that it must set up a body to specifically promote biotechnology. This would specify the goals to be achieved and would be accountable for progress.


Biotech aspirations

During the apartheid regime, South Africa was isolated from the international community and was thus excluded from many developments in the technology field. As a result there was a considerable effort to develop scientific expertise independently within the country to avoid reliance on external parties. The major areas that benefited from this approach were the arms, mining and textile industries (1). South Africa was also already highly developed in certain areas such as medicine, being the location for the first human heart transplant in 1967 (2).


In a sense there is an inherent ambition and overwhelming confidence within South Africa that they can overcome technological hurdles and challenge others around the world. The political landscape in South Africa has now been completely transformed since the days of apartheid, but the elements that provided the in-house technology expertise during this time remain in place and are now being directed towards other fields such as biotechnology.


Although South Africa has an established reputation in the technological processes involved in brewing and agriculture, it has less experience in applying biotechnology to healthcare. For biotech companies to succeed they will need to apply the latest advances in genetics and genomics to their R&D. In 2001, recognizing the challenges it faced in developing a mature biotech industry, the South African government published its National Biotech Strategy and allocated R400 million over a three year period towards its implementation (3). The country is also taking account of developments elsewhere in the world in order to create a realistic and long-term plan for its future industry.


A key part of the new national strategy has been to create a number of biotechnology regional innovation centres (BRICs) in order to implement the National Biotech Strategy on both a regional and national scale by acting as focal points for the development of biotechnology platforms (3, 4). The three BRICS that have been established are BioPAD (Biotechnology Partnerships and Development), Cape Biotech and LIFElab East Coast Biotechnology Consortium.


The primary role of the BRICs is to implement the strategy by investing the allocated R400 million funding in start-up biotech companies and developing human capacity to support the growing industry through various capacity development programmes. The BRIC activities will be overseen by the Biotechnology Advisory Committee (BAC), which will ensure development of the sector on a national level through the coordination and integration of the regional activities. Furthermore, by training local scientists in the field of biotechnology, South Africa will have a resource base to staff the industry as it develops in the future (5).


Targetting unmet medical need

One of the specified aims in the South African National Biotech Strategy is therefore to direct some of the domestic biotech R&D effort towards areas of unmet medical need. This would allow it to become less dependent on outside research efforts. All BRICS are being encouraged to invest in relevant projects and it is hoped that they will eventually attract foreign interest in their work. For example, there has been foreign interest in the bioinformatics approaches being used by South African research groups for areas such as AIDS, dengue fever, tuberculosis and other tropical diseases (6). In 2002, the South African National Bioinformatics Institute hosted a training course sponsored by the World Health Organization that examined bioinformatics approaches to neglected diseases (6).


The South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative (SAAVI) was established in 1999 to coordinate the research, development and testing of HIV/AIDS vaccines in South Africa. SAAVI works with a range of national and international partners, but focuses primarily on the development of subtype C HIV/AIDS vaccines (as HIV subtype C accounts for over 90% of infections in the southern African region) (7). SAAVI’s expertise will be important for testing vaccines developed by the BRICs.



There is a belief that the development of the biotech sector can help South Africa in achieving national goals, not only for reducing the impact of major diseases, but also in terms of job creation, urban renewal, human resource development and regional integration. It is particularly important for South Africa to develop a knowledge based economy such as biotech because traditional industries such as mining, primary agriculture and manufacturing can no longer be solely relied upon to drive economic growth in the country.


In October 2005, South Africa hosted its second bio-entrepreneurial conference called Bio2Biz SA 2005, which attracted a number of international plenary speakers including Steven Burrill of Burrill & Company (8, 9). The event was primarily funded by the BRICs in order to promote the biotech sector both locally and internationally and enable prospective entrepreneurs to meet with potential business partners (9). Events such as these will be important to demonstrate to an international audience that the emerging South African biotech sector is innovative and represents a potential source of new medicines and technologies.



1.         Motari M, Quach U, Thorsteinsdóttir H, Martin DK, Daar AS and Singer PA (2004). South Africa - blazing a trail for African biotechnology. Nature Biotechnology Volume 22 Supplement. December 2004. DC37-41.

2.         Anon (2001). Christiaan Barnard: Heart to Heart. September 3, 2001.,13716,173533,00.html

3.         Anon (2005). Biotechnology Regional Innovation Centres (BRICs). Public understanding of biotechnology. Department of Science and Technology.

4.         Cloete TE (2003). Biotechnology – the next wave. May 2003. Science in Africa.

5.         Cloete TE (2003). Biotechnology – the next wave. May 2003. Science in Africa.

6.            Philipkoski K (2002). Cure for South Africa's ills. Cape Information Technology Initiative.

7.         Anon (2005). Background and establishment of SAAVI. The South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative (SAAVI).


9.         Anon (2005).

Britt Akermann and Dr Faiz Kermani

Last updated on: 27/08/2010 11:40:18

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