Department of Science and Technology
Thursday, 25 May 2017        
Parliament, Cape Town

The Memorandum of Understanding to be entered between the DST, SA Medical Research Council and Novartis South Africa will establish a co-operation framework for the future.

A little background is required. In 2009, Novartis initiated a ground-breaking programme to develop human capacity in developing markets. Among the goals of this program is selecting the best students from Africa, South America and Asia and offer them training at Novartis research sites across the world. To date, the programme has offered such opportunities to about 100 students and young faculty. By partnering with scientific and clinical communities, Novartis has initiated new research initiatives in Africa and South America as a direct result of the program.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) Drug Discovery and Development Centre, H3-D, has developed a particularly strong relationship with Novartis. Under the guidance of Professor Kelly Chibale, Founder and Director of H3-D, the partnership has thrived and developed beyond the scope of the initial program of 2009.

There are several challenges we must address in the drug discovery process. South Africa's activities within the value chain of drug discovery, drug development and clinical testing of medicines are fragmented, under-funded, and with limited absorptive capacity to attract and retain key skills. There is a lack of continuity with respect to long-term funding and sustained pipeline of projects and there remain significant gaps in areas of scientific development.

The pioneering partnership between Novartis and H3-D, as well as the Novartis interaction with the University of the Witwatersrand and Stellenbosch Universities are the basis of the agreement with Novartis.

This creates an opportunity to significantly expand on this initiative to:

•    increase the scale of the existing partnership with a focus on capacity building and skills development;

•    broaden the scope of diseases to include non-communicable diseases

•    bridge the national gap between discovery and clinical strengths

The Memorandum of Agreement between Novartis, the South African Medical Research Council and the DST will be executed within the framework of the Strategic Health Innovation Partnerships.  A Steering Committee will be constituted to manage the Novartis agreement to ensure that all universities and science councils will be able to benefit from the services and research opportunities offered.

The Strategic Health Innovation Partnerships (SHIP) was designed by the Health Innovation Unit of the Department of Science and Technology, and is implemented by the South African Medical Research Council. The purpose of SHIP is to seek, manage and fund multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional product research and development projects from prototype to proof of concept. SHIP amalgamated and manages a number of DST-funded health research and development initiatives. SHIP entered into a number of partnerships, e.g. the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Newton Fund and Grand Challenges in order to achieve its goals.

South Africa has a significant burden of disease that has a major impact on mortality and health sector spending.  New, efficacious and cost-effective solutions are required to address these pressing health issues. SHIP was established to coordinate the development of new and/or adapt existing drugs, vaccines and other biologicals, diagnostics and medical devices for the priority diseases or medical conditions in South Africa.

The quadruple burden of HIV, TB, non-communicable diseases and violence and injuries in South Africa are priority areas of focus in order to improve the health of our society.  As the country responds to its challenges, it's important to prepare for a national system of health innovation that establishes itself as a global player in health-product R&D and innovation. Health innovation includes the development of new drugs, vaccines, diagnostics and medical devices, as well as new techniques in process engineering and manufacturing that will provide new approaches and contributes to policies in health systems and services, including a better understanding of human health behaviour.  

International cooperation has consistently been an important aspect of our various national research and innovation programmes and strategies.

Our relationships with Switzerland in particular is deeply rooted. We remain in awe of Switzerland's many-year ranking in global indexes as the most innovative country in the world.

In 2007 South Africa and Switzerland agreed to cooperate in science and technology, which includes the fields of public health and bio-medicine, biotechnology, nanotechnology, as well as human and social sciences. We established a joint research programme administered by our Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the University of Basel. The call for research projects covered human and social science, biotechnology, nanotechnology, public health and biomedicine.

I appreciate the growth in Swiss-SA science collaboration. The joint research programme has encouraged direct institutional links and collaborations between our respective higher education and research institutions. And now between business and public research institutes. I hope that further cooperation and projects will be developed and funded through innovative research and development programmes in the future.