Research into plant-based rapid diagnostic Covid-19 test kits, which aim to provide an affordable alternative to developing nations, has been given a major financial boost from Europe to the tune of approximately R900 million. A variety of Nicotiana – commonly referred to as the tobacco plant – forms part of the clinical trials being carried out by a South African company.

As the global race to combat Covid-19 reaches a critical stage amid a burgeoning second wave, the urgent rollout of affordable rapid testing kits and vaccines is of particular concern to emerging economies. While multinational pharmaceutical companies vie for top spot in the vaccine contest, a small local company is looking to provide equitable access to Covid-19 tests and treatments.

With roots in the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Biopharming Research Unit, the local biotech lab – which studies biological modifications as an answer to questions of immunology and genomics – has caught the attention of European investors.

The European Investment Bank (EIB), the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND), and local funding initiatives recently pumped almost R900 million into Cape Bio Pharms to further Covid-19 antigen and antibody research. The EIB funding, which accounts for 70% of the total project cost, will be used to open a new Covid-19 research facility, operated by Cape Biologix Technologies, a subsidiary of Cape Bio Pharms, in Mauritius.

Funding from FIND, which covers a further 7% of the project costs, will be used to scale-up the pilot production programme currently underway in Cape Town. Remaining costs have been covered by the kENUP Foundation and South Africa’s University Technology Fund (UTF) among others.


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