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Nzimande vows to invest millions to allow SA scientists, pharmaceuticals to produce local Covid-19 vaccine

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Minister Blade Nzimande has vowed to invest millions to allow SA scientists and pharmaceuticals to produce a locally branded vaccine to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Blade Nzimande. Picture: GCIS

Johannesburg – Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Blade Nzimande has vowed to invest millions to allow South African scientists and pharmaceuticals to produce a locally branded vaccine to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

Nzimande said the planned investment would go ahead soon while his Science and Innovation Department was due next month, to conduct a feasibility study for the construction of a Science and Technology University, which would have as its primary objective to produce vaccines, not only for Covid-19 but also for other pandemics.

Nzimande made these revelations when he and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced the initial breakthrough in the fight against the new variant of Covid-19 on Wednesday.

The findings were made by local scientists who found that some people who were infected with the the variant of virus identified in South Africa late last year have developed anti-bodies to fight the virus.

However, the government and scientists have asked South Africans not to let down their guard in the fight against Covid-19 despite the breakthrough in their findings.

The findings followed a collaboration between the government and local scientists from the KwaZulu-Natal Research Informatics and Sequencing Programme (KRISP).

KRISP is the first in the world to uncover the findings, showing that the 501Y.V2 variant has a number of mutations on its spike protein, which increases the efficacy of the virus to infect humans and potentially posing problems of vaccine escape.

Due to their initial discovery, the Department of Science and Innovation, under Nzimande allocated KRISP R25 million over the next 12 months to complete the sequencing of 10 000 Sars-CoV-2 genomes in South Africa and the rest of the African continent.

The South African scientists and epidemiologists made their discovery following a year-long study on the efficacy of the first wave of the Covid-19 virus and the second variant known as 501Y.V2.

The new variant was initially discovered in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape in January this year. It was also discovered in 48 countries in the world including some parts of Europe and the UK.

Yesterday, during a virtual meeting hosted by Nzimande and Mkhize, the scientists and epidemiologists, all expressed hope that the country was on course to fight the new variant.

Prof Túlio de Oliveira reiterated the warning that the new variant should not be called a South African variant, saying its effects were similar to other countries.

Detailing their findings, one of the experts Dr Koleka Mlisana said they collaborated with various universities in the country, the National Institute of Communicable Disease (NICD) and the National Health Laboratory Services to study samples collected from more than 3 324 people from all nine provinces.

Mlisana said the samples were taken to various laboratories to test whether these vaccines were able to deal with the efficacy of the first wave of the virus and the new variant.

According to Mlisana, their studies have proved positive but not 100%. According to the scientists the vaccine accuracy rate now stands at 85% but more studies are to be conducted to add more potency to these vaccines.

Supporting their findings, Professor Penny Moore of Wits said: “These vaccines are providing people infected with the virus with antibodies to fight it. We do not know how long these antibodies will last in humans. We will be conducting more studies,” Prof Moore said.

She encouraged people to continue using their masks and to sanitise to avoid further spread of the virus.

The experts were unanimous in their view that people that have been infected have immunity against the variant and other lineages.

De Oliviera revealed that various pharmaceutical companies in the world — based on their findings — were already working on producing stronger vaccines. Some of the new set of vaccines are expected in the next 10 weeks while other companies hope to produce them in the next four months.