SA part of search for COVID-19 vaccine

Writer: Silusapho Nyanda

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to be an existential crisis that has disrupted economies, health sectors and life as people know it. In an effort to find a lasting solution, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is leading the charge to find a vaccine that will stop the pandemic.

Seventy countries across the globe are at different stages of research into finding what would be a lasting medical solution to the pandemic. South Africa is also part of these efforts, with a team of scientists working together in researching a potential vaccine. A National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) team forms part of the larger WHO effort, with results of its research shared with the global authority on healthcare.

Preliminary work

The team is made up of experts in virology, infectious diseases outbreaks, pathology and pharmacology, among others. Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande says preliminary work on the development of a vaccine is being conducted in collaboration with the University of Cape Town, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the Biovac Institute (Biovac). WHO says it may be 18 months before a vaccine is publicly available.

“There is an urgent need to describe the epidemiology of COVID-19 in our country, as well as to address diagnostic, therapeutic, host and viral factors that may facilitate transmission or protect against infection,” says Minister Nzimande.

As part of these efforts, a number of existing drugs – including interferon, lopinavir/ritonavir and chloroquine – are being repurposed and their effectiveness as a potential treatment for COVID-19 is being tested. Clinical trials are now taking place internationally and are being overseen by the WHO.

“The South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis is currently engaging with other sources of data and modelling groups and refining their assumptions with a view to produce an updated model of the spread of the epidemic over time,” says the Minister.

The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) has negotiated the repurposing of various facilities and laboratories to respond to the outbreak. Entities in line to assist include Biovac, the Centre of Excellence for Biomedical TB Research, the Centre for Proteomic and Genomic Research and Afrigen Bio. Discussions to facilitate the accreditation of some of the facilities to produce reagents are under way.

Funding the research

Minister Nzimande says the department has availed R4 million for COVID-19 interventions and will redirect an additional R30 million to test the efficacy of existing drugs.

“The team has also identified opportunities for accessing key data sets held by the private sector for the explicit purpose of strength-ening our situational capacity efforts…

“In addition, a DSI task team is engaging with the Department of Health, the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority to facilitate research on COVID-19 by mobilising funding, reprioritising research strategies and creating an enabling ethical and regulatory framework.”

The SAMRC has allocated R8 million towards disease surveil-lance at five hospitals, with further funding of R5 million towards genomic sequencing at the NICD. SAMRC President and CEO Professor Glenda Gray says that health surveillance of the disease is important for tracking and measuring the impact of the pandemic, which will help health authorities in South Africa and globally.

“Genomic sequencing will help us to study the epidemiology of the disease and to leapfrog technologies to develop treatments against coronavirus,” she says.

Coordinated response needed

Minister Nzimande says given the emergence of the virus at a global level and the concomitant lack of adequate information on the epidemiology, therapeutic management or natural history of the coronavirus, as well as the lack of a vaccine, it is important for researchers in South Africa to coordinate a response to the outbreak to facilitate its control.

A team of scientists from the United States, France, China and Hong Kong were able to identify the speed at which the virus is spreading, a factor that may help public health officials in their efforts at containment.

“They found that time between cases in a chain of transmission is less than a week and that more than 10 percent of patients are infected by somebody who has the virus but does not yet have symptoms.”

Research topics that will be considered for funding include diagnostic tests, targeted surveillance to establish risk factors among frontline staff at airports, trials for the therapeutic and prophylactic treatment of healthcare workers, the identification of antibodies in patients in South Africa who have successfully cleared the infection, and vaccine development.

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