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SA does its bit in race to develop vaccine

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Trial in honour of late SA Medical Research Council scientist , Dr Gita Ramjee

SOUTH Africa’s top 30 scientists, researchers and clinicians are in a race to save the world – and honour acclaimed SA Medical Research Council chief specialist scientist Dr Gita Ramjee, who died with Covid-19 in Durban on Tuesday night.

Led by Professor Helen Rees and Dr Jeremy Nel, the team drawn from eight South African medical schools across 14 hospitals is part of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) landmark Public Health Solidarity Trial.

Together with nine other countries in the landmark medical trial, they are trying to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus that has infected every corner of the globe in the last four months.

“All of my colleagues from my institute as well as those involved in the trial agree that this is for Gita,” Rees said.

South Africa is a key member of the international initiative because of its experience with HIV/Aids and tuberculosis, said Nel.

“We don’t really know yet what the effect of HIV and Covid-19 will be together. South Africa offers an opportunity to work that out. We are also a country in Africa and there is not a lot of data that comes from African countries, usually.”

Rees agreed: “Many of our researchers from the solidarity trial are infectious disease specialists who know how to work in communities and know how to follow up with (infected) people because they have been doing it for years during their work with HIV.”

The clinical trial entails five treatment arms: standard of care, where selected Covid-19 volunteer patients receive basic medical attention and support while the other four arms include a randomised treatment regime using a range of different drugs, some of them currently administered antiretroviral drugs.

“The trial will be able to compare high-level treatments from multiple countries to see which is better than standard of care which is no additional therapy apart from the usual support we give to any patient,” Nel said.

The WHO has been evaluating vaccines that showed potential against Mers and Sars, the two most recent coronavirus pandemics, ever since Covid-19 was identified.

The South African team is also participating in the Crown Coronation Study to evaluate drugs to prevent infections among health care workers as well as checking the effect of Covid-19 on patients hospitalised for pneumonia and the virus’ effect on pregnant women and their unborn babies.

The scientists believe that South Africa’s young population could work in the country’s favour.

“If this virus behaves in our population as it’s done in China for example, we could expect minor and fewer infections because of our age bands,” said Rees.

There is still much to learn about Covid-19.

“That’s why the surveillance for Covid-19 is important, we can’t tell you definitely that will be true, we have to monitor what is happening in communities continuously in terms of how the outbreak is evolving,” said Rees.

“I think because the government is now making sure that they are going into communities to test people rather than waiting for them to come to the health-care facilities, we will get a lot more data from that and we will be in a better position to know if we are limiting the actual cases or whether it’s just the lull before the storm kicks off again,” said Nel.

“The intention of the lockdown is to slow things down and even if this means it takes us longer, we will have fewer deaths, we will have systems in place in communities and at clinics and hospitals which will be able to cope with the spread of the virus,” said Rees.

“I am very impressed in the way that South Africans have pulled together. South Africa has been ahead of things and we would be even further if we had all the equipment,” added Rees.

“We are not alone in having these problems but we know what we want to do and we are pushing to find all of the equipment that we need to have, including getting local supplies where possible to support our 

efforts.

“Although our measures and strategies are not perfect, our government is doing incredible stuff under difficult circumstances.”

The biggest concern of all though, as Health Minister Zweli Mkhize pointed out this week, was the impending storm of the annual cold flu season as winter sets in.