Profile Petro Terblanche: developing an mRNA technology hub in Africa

Petro Terblanche, the Managing Director of Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines based in Cape Town, South Africa, insists that her varied career has been unplanned. What kind of a plan would take you from a starting point in animal biology to the leadership of a rising biotech company via data management in cancer trials, environmental epidemiology, research on air pollution, the management of a government food science and technology agency, leadership roles in a nuclear energy corporation and a chemical company, and a part-time university professorship? “I take challenges”, Terblanche explains, “but once I feel the challenge has been met I get restless, and I look for something new.” Paradoxically, this hotchpotch of science and management made her the ideal candidate for her present job. As Linda-Gail Bekker, Professor of Medicine at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, points out: “Taking on the job with Afrigen brought all her skills and experiences together.” Professor Glenda Gray, President and Chief Executive Officer of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), describes Terblanche as “a gifted and entrepreneurial scientist. 

She was just the right person to put in charge [of Afrigen]”. Afrigen was still a small organisation when, earlier in 2023, WHO formally announced that the company was to host a new mRNA technology hub for the production of a COVID-19 vaccine with the longer-term aim to build capacity to produce other mRNA vaccines. This initiative is part of WHO’s programme for helping low-income and middle-income countries manufacture their own vaccines and biologicals. “Around the time [of the WHO bid announcement] we were starting the construction of an mRNA facility”, Terblanche recalls. “When I saw the WHO invitation I thought, ‘Let’s go for it’.” With the support of the SAMRC, and despite doubts about the likelihood of success, Afrigen put in a bid. “We weren’t scared”, she adds. “We were a small company, but we’d punched above our weight a few times.” 

The bid succeeded. Terblanche was delighted to realise that her lifetime’s experiences of scientific research, political engagement, and people and technology management would all serve this new and ambitious project. How does she rate Afrigen’s progress? “Where we are now”, she says, “we have proof of concept, we have preclinical evidence, we know we have scaleability…we have a clinical trial protocol approved.” The Chief Science Adviser to Afrigen’s mRNA programme is a US-based consultant, Amin Khan. “In spite of a short time”, he says, “and with a relatively small amount of money invested in the programme they’ve done a remarkable job.” Khan also points out that even in South Africa it can be hard to find enough personnel with the required training and expertise in this area. “I do believe that Petro has the vision and the passion and commitment to deliver a safe and effective mRNA vaccine”, says Gray. This passion has already enabled Terblanche to enlist partners in 15 other countries. Afrigen is training them to adopt its technology and set up their own production facilities. 

Not everyone, of course, shares Gray’s optimism. Critics are sceptical about the sustainability of the programme, and the capacity of some partners to meet what will be required of them. But Terblanche welcomes challenges. “I need people to push back”, she says. “Constructive criticism is good for the programme. It keeps us on our toes.” Terblanche grew up on a working farm in South Africa and would have become a farmer herself had her father not insisted on her acquiring an education. A degree in botany and zoology from the University of Pretoria kept her close to her roots, and she went on to join a mammal research group. But a growing urge to do something involving humans drew her into biomedical science. In 1982 she joined the University of Pretoria’s Department of Medical Oncology and learned about the conduct of clinical trials and the management of data. 5 years later she switched to environmental disease research with an emphasis on air pollution. She did a postdoctoral stint at Harvard University in Boston, USA, to gain experience in epidemiology, returned to South Africa, and was hired by SAMRC to survey the health effects of air pollution. 

Subsequently, she became the first woman to join the top management team of South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and then moved to SAMRC as Executive Director for Technology and Innovation. Her management credentials by now established, she spent a year with the country’s Nuclear Energy Corporation and 4 years as managing director of a chemical company. In 2018, Terblanche took up her position at Afrigen. “Petro’s engaging, likeable, and diplomatic”, says Khan. “Getting the mRNA platform together required all of these things…She’s an outstanding leader.” Gray adds that Terblanche is “willing to learn and take advice, and to adapt and change if she knows it’s the right thing”. Bekker talks of Terblanche’s high expectations of herself: “She’s interested in everything, and when you meet her she’s a ball of energy.” Whatever drives her, according to Khan, it is not power or wealth, “I think it’s her desire to make a difference on the African continent.” Given her wide-ranging career path, it is not surprising that Terblanche cannot say what she will be doing 5 years from now. But on motivation she is clear. “I like work”, she says. “But I need a goal, a sense of purpose.” Right now Afrigen is providing her with a very large purpose—and no shortage of goals to be strived for. She laughs: “Every day there’s a new one.”

– Geoff Watts Vol 401 June 17, 2023