SA signs innovation agreement with Novartis

A high-level memorandum of understanding (MoU) for medical research and development has been signed between the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), the department of science and technology (DST) and Swiss drug firm, Novartis.

The MoU, a public private partnership (PPP), aims to establish a framework for potential cooperation between the parties. This will allow for joint research programmes in selected communicable and non-communicable diseases (NCD), improve South African patients’ access to innovative medicines and build up the research & development capabilities and ecosystem in South Africa and Africa.

“Public private partnerships, such as what we are about to embark on, are catalysts that enhance our scientific research and innovation capabilities. These partnerships are visionary and aim to change lives in the present and future,” said Professor Richard Gordon, SAMRC’s executive director: grants, innovation and product development (GIPD).

Innovation chasm

The MoU will position South Africa as an innovative hub for Africa. “Government will continue to work hard to promote partnerships that focus on growing our R&D capability. I am confident that the DST is on track to achieving the government’s goal for greater investment in R&D as well as a GDP spend of 1.5% by 2019,” said minister of science and technology, Naledi Pandoo, adding this type of agreement was pointless without action and a solid working partnership. “We don’t want friendships for their own sake, but ones that are meaningful.”

She said that Africa was losing too many of its young scientists to other countries. “We don’t want to to be emigrants. We want Novartis to build an innovation hub in Africa that produces technology of the first rank and sends it out to the rest of the world. At the moment, these efforts are fragmented and underfunded. There is an innovation chasm that we have to close at some point.”

In addition, there is a significant burden of disease in South Africa, and there needed to be more research into traditional remedies in a way that was inclusive of communities and indigenous knowledge.

When it comes to public health, the minister explained that more focus on the human and societal roles in health and the burden of disease was needed. “We need to understand why young women between 16 and 24 are still unaware of the dangers of HIV.”

Part of global strategy

Novartis invests in scientific capability development as part of an integrated strategy to strengthen healthcare systems in low and middle income countries (LMIC). Over the past several years, the company has established a portfolio of healthcare-related capacity/capability development initiatives to advance basic and clinical research capacity in emerging markets.

Thomas Kowallik, Novartis South Africa country president, notes that the company has made significant investment in the area of R&D within the South African healthcare and pharmaceutical space in recent years and is firmly committed to continue to do so. “As part of our global strategy, we are highly committed to developing markets. Our hub in Hyderabad India is a nice success model.”

He pointed out that unlike other locales where the company has initiated these hubs, South Africa has a young population and good existing infrastructure. “So, there’s nothing to stop it. Africa is a big market going forward.”

Although Kowallik didn’t put a figure to the investment his company would make, he did allude to a similar project in China, to which Novartis provided $1bn for a biomedical research hub.


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