DSI bolsters Covid-19 response
AS the country battles the surge of Covid-19 infections and the race for a vaccine to the deadly virus is still being sought worldwide, the Department of Science and Innovation has bolstered its Covid-19 response.
Minister Blade Dzimande said the department has been mobilising across the National System of Innovation, especially among its entities and the entities of sister departments, specific initiatives that are currently being fast-tracked to support the government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Some of the initiatives being spearheaded in this regard include the deployment of a department funded infrastructure to increase the footprint of COVID-19 testing.
According to Ndzimande a critical part of supporting South Africa’s COVID-19 response is to make technological capabilities available to broaden the country’s capacity to conduct testing.
“We funded technology platforms and laboratories possess capabilities and have conducted the preparatory work necessary to become part of the national testing network.”
This includes the Centre for Proteomic and Genomic Research which has validated various testing protocols and undertaken risk assessments according to the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines.
“It will install a laboratory information management system as required by the National Health Laboratory Services and testing started in April.”
The KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP), in partnership with Centre of AIDS Programme for Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) and the Africa Health Research Institute, have validated the quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) and sequencing protocols from two manufacturers for COVID-19 testing.
Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) labs were also repurposed to do testing in support of government’s drive for a massive roll-out of testing.
The department’s second initiative is in biomanufacturing, which involves molecular biology enzymes, reagents and testing kits.
“A local supply of reagents and kits for COVID-19 testing are being developed through DSI-funded spin-out companies, centres of excellence, and various other programmes and initiatives.”
This is to ensure security of supply, local manufacturing, and the creation and preservation of jobs.
“South Africa currently imports testing kits, and local manufacturing will also boost supplies for the continent.”
Ndzimande said the work was at the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) accreditation stage and, in some cases, approval had already been granted with some of the products being ready for use in May 2020.
The third initiative is in the development of personal protective equipment as some areas still suffer shortages.
The Product Development Technology Station at the Central University of Technology has been developing personal protective equipment (PPE), specifically an airway protection device for healthcare workers.
The eNtsa innovation hub at Nelson Mandela University is using additive manufacturing (3D printing) for face shield frame design and printing modifications to enable clinicians to easily replace standard A4 transparent sheets without the need for holes and adhesives.
“The designs are now available through open source networks. ENtsa also positioned itself to provide engineering support in the Eastern Cape and around the country during the lockdown, so as to enable critical projects pertaining to maintenance for the power generation industry to continue.”
Another crucial initiative the department is jonesing for is the support of good hygiene practice.
The Technology Station in Chemicals immediately started with the production of the first batch of 5 000 containers of hand sanitiser to be distributed to staff and placed at strategic points on campuses for students and on-campus communities to stay safe.
“The production of hand sanitisers will be an ongoing project until the crisis is over, with the technology station also investigating ways to assist vulnerable communities like old age homes.”
Efforts are also being coordinated for a local COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing plant.
“We have put together a COVID-19 Vaccine Production Task Team which includes the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (DTIC), the South African Medical Research Council, academia as well local vaccine and adjuvant manufacturers Biovac (which is 47,5% government-owned) and Afrigen (which has Industrial Development Corporation investment).”
The aim is to get South Africa into a state of readiness to manufacture an approved COVID-19 vaccine locally.
“In anticipation of the huge demand should a candidate vaccine be identified, manufacturing facilities will need to be established in different regions, and the SADC and Africa will also need to be ready.”
There is also a drive for technical support for the National Ventilator Project.
The National Ventilator Project (NVP) was conceptualised by the DTIC in conjunction with the Manufacturing Circle in order to coordinate and secure a supply of locally manufactured ventilators.
Ndzimande said four potential suppliers have been selected, and production orders were placed with them for an initial batch of 20 000 ventilators.
“One of the selected suppliers was the CSIR, which was contracted to manufacture 2 000 non-invasive ventilators.”