Patrick Soon-Shiong, the planet's richest doctor, returns to SA with big plans
The reason I'm here is that I'm an African. I was born in South Africa; I had the privilege of learning all the techniques and know-how of how to develop biotechnology drugs in America. My mission now is to bring it home.Patrick Soon-Shiong, CEO - Nantworks
Patrick Soon-Shiong is the wealthiest doctor in the world and the richest man in Los Angeles. He was born on 29 July 1952 and grew up “coloured” in Port Elizabeth after his parents fled from China during World War Two.
Soon-Shiong spoke to CapeTalk's Refilwe Moloto about growing up in apartheid South Africa, his family, and the dreams he hopes to achieve for South Africa when he returns.
The doctor is one of the biggest investors in South Africa's healthcare system, launching the Nant SA vaccine production hub with President Cyril Ramaphosa a few weeks ago. His beginnings, though, were humble.
His father was a herbalist who had an “incredible” influence on his choice of career.
"He would have cans of herbs arrive from China. Foul smelling! [He'd be] cooking these things, forcing me to taste them. Anybody who knocked on the door or had an infection would get treated. There would be no charge. I would watch and learn. It inspired me to become a doctor and that's what I became."
Shoon-Shiong started his medical career during the 1976 uprisings in Soweto. He said it made him a more empathetic person. He told Moloto about his experience with a police officer asking him to show his dompas.
"A police officer asked me where's my ID and as a typical student I asked, 'where's yours?'. I was hauled off to prison."
Shoon-Shiong finished high school at 16 and received his medical degree from the University of the Witwatersrand at 23, finishing fourth out of 189 graduates.
"I was terrified in medical school because we had a quota of two Chinese students. The rest were all white and well educated... I wanted to work at Johannesburg General Hospital. I was told it wasn't about race, it was about merit." He was given permission to do the job provided he took only 50% of the stipend.
He left the country to do his post-graduate degree while Nelson Mandela was still on Robben Island. Now, he's excited to return.
"What I see is a wonderful, young population… A wonderful melding. There’s an internal happiness about the people. There’s not this jadedness of capitalism that I see in developed countries… So to me, coming back, there's clearly lots of needs – infrastructure, electricity, water, capital infusion… Now is the right time for us to come back because I think we can have an impact…"
Fighting cancer, making money
Soon-Shiong became well-known during the 1980s for transplanting pancreas cells to treat diabetes. He invented the world’s first protein nanoparticle delivery technology to treat breast cancer, doubling the response rate in patients. He also founded two drug companies, Abraxis and American Pharmaceutical Partners, which upon their sale made him one of the world’s richest men.
He holds 50 US patents, including that of blockbuster pancreatic cancer drug Abraxane.
Giving his billions away
Forbes magazine ranks Soon-Shiong’s R117 billion fortune as among the largest in the United States.
Soon-Shiong, as a member of the Buffett/Gates Giving Pledge, plans to give away half of his sizeable fortune while he is still alive.
To date, he has given away hundreds of millions of dollars and funds numerous healthcare projects in the US.
A vaccine-starved Africa no more!
Soon-Shiong seeks to position southern Africa as a hub for vaccine development on the continent. Investing in South Africa’s medical biotech industry is the first step.
The goal is to produce a billion COVID-19 vaccines by 2025, as well as other drugs and therapies.
It’s a life’s dream for me, the country’s self-reliance and capacity… The country has an opportunity to be completely self-reliant… A billion doses made from scratch… There is sufficient innovation, human capital, scientific skills, and a desire to elevate the country to become the Singapore of Africa.Patrick Soon-Shiong, CEO - Nantworks
He also commended the country's scientists who have been leading in studies of the novel virus.
South Africa has taken a lead in monitoring these variants… awareness is important, but the response is probably even more important… We develop vaccines to be responsive to variants… We’re developing T cells for the inside of the virus and antibodies for the outside… That’s what our vaccine does… We were well on our way to developing T cell vaccines for cancer, that’s why we adopted it for Covid…Patrick Soon-Shiong, CEO - Nantworks
Shoon-Shiong has also been vocal on vaccine apartheid, referring to the hoarding of vaccines by Western countries when they were produced at the height of the pandemic. Poorer countries, while trying to pay for them, were left without stock.
I use the word ‘vaccine apartheid’… That’s part of what’s driving me here. You need self-reliance… It’s unconscionable what happened… When I come home, it’s not only to work on Covid…Patrick Soon-Shiong, CEO - Nantworks
With a country like South Africa… to create universal healthcare… and to measure outcomes… it’s very exciting…Patrick Soon-Shiong, CEO - Nantworks
Returning home isn't going to be too difficult for the good doctor - at least when it comes to language.
I can say lots of good stuff in Afrikaans, but my Chinese is terrible!Patrick Soon-Shiong, CEO - Nantworks