How the world sees SA: Local scientists prevent global vaccine crisis

South Africa’s vaccine procurement and rollout have been mired in controversy. From a late start to funding glitches, nothing seemed to go smoothly. When the government finally announced the imminent arrival of the first batch of Covid-19 vaccines on the country’s shores, there was a collective sigh of relief. Soon relief turned to confusion as experts withdrew the AstraZeneca Oxford inoculation from its rollout for healthcare workers. A small study of the shot had shown low efficacy against the locally identified strain of the virus, which accounts for the majority of infections. The Financial Times proposes that, rather than another blunder, this latest development highlights the important contributions made by the country’s scientific community in the global race to vaccinate. – Melani Nathan

By Thulasizwe Sithole

The Financial Times maintains that South Africa’s scientific community has a vital role in the global race to vaccinate against Covid-19.

South African government’s decision to halt the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine after data from a small study showed low efficacy against a local mutated strain of the virus, called the 501. V2 variant speaks to a much wider contribution, according to the FT.

“Without the researchers in South Africa who were able to quickly identify the variant and incorporate it into this clinical trial, the world would not yet know the effectiveness of the vaccine on this variant,” said Mark Suzman, chief executive of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Sandile Cele, a 32-year-old researcher at the Durban-based African Health Research Institute found a new way to grow the mutated strain of Covid-19 in the lab. This was an important breakthrough that helped show that the variant can escape antibodies and lead to reinfection.

The next priority is to test samples of vaccines and the plasma of vaccinated people from around the world against 501. V2 and to support similar work elsewhere, said Tulio de Oliveira, member of the consortium of South African specialists who discovered the variant.

The FT writes that the discovery highlights the presence of world-class labs in the country which could be used in the fight against Covid-19. South Africa has nine ‘p3- plus’ labs which are equipped to handle serious live pathogens. Some countries don’t even have one of these specialised facilities.

According to the FT, South Africa’s fight against the scourge of HIV and Tuberculosis means that a national network of laboratories is capable of studying the Covid-19 virus and forming a genomic surveillance network.

Willem Hanekom, the director of the African Health Research Institute and co-leader of the consortium of scientists investigating 501.V2 said that South Africa’s participation in the trials of the Johnson & Johnson and Novavax vaccines is key in their effectiveness against severe illness in those infected with the variant. “This is an eye-opener, in terms of how important it is to have geographic diversity,” Hanekom said.

The Africa Centres for Disease Control has called for more African vaccine trials and wider genome sequencing on the continent. John Nkengasong, head of the Africa CDC told the FT that genome sequencing will need to be dramatically scaled to track 501. V2 and other variants in the coming months.

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