The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic which continues to claim millions of lives and threatens to overwhelm the health systems of countries across the world has foregrounded the role of science, innovation, technology to halt the spread of the virus, according to Dr Blade Nzimande, minister of higher education and training, science and innovation.
Nzimande gave an assessment of the country’s capacity to address Covid-19. He said the pandemic has also helped showcase the country’s top researchers and experts who not only provide scientific advice but also lead cutting edge research into how to mitigate the impact of the virus. Nzimande said the current cohort of experts and scientists have what it takes to guide the country through the pandemic period.
He noted that South Africa has made significant investment, through the department of science and innovation (DSI), in infrastructure to drive scientific research and innovation. These include premier research facilities that would make it possible to conduct further scientific research into the pandemic and other similar health challenges in the future.
“These investments, and the talent that exists in our national system of innovation, have seen our country produce premier science that is contributing to the global body of knowledge on COVID-19 – including the detection of new variants of the novel coronavirus,” said Nzimande.
He said genomic research has proved to be a “potent tool” in the fight against the pandemic, adding that is the reason why they contributed funding towards the establishment of the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa. The facility is based at the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. It was at this facility that local scientists conducted investigations into the evolutionary characteristics of SARS-CoV-2 and detected a new variant, dubbed 501Y.V2.
Nzimande said they have invested a further R25 million to ensure the completion of the sequencing of 10 000 SARSCoV2 genomes in South Africa and Africa. In addition, the DSI has put in another R69.4 million for research and innovation, which covers 21 projects chief of which is the first plant-based manufacturing of antibodies for Covid-19.
The main aim of the initiative, according to Nzimande, is to use various plant-based “expression platforms to facilitate the rapid development of vaccine candidates, therapeutic antibodies and diagnostic reagents against SARS-CoV-2”.
Another important development is the partnership the DSI has entered with various organisations involved in science. One such is collaboration is between the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Kentucky Biological Products (KBP for the potential manufacturing of the antigen of their vaccine.
According to Nzimande, the KBP vaccine is manufactured using specific tobacco plants, and the CSIR has the ability to expand its facility for plant-based expression systems to manufacture the antigen needed for the vaccine. KBP has also expressed interest in testing the vaccine in South Africa. The total DSI investment in this study is in the region of R2, 4 million.
He said Biovac, a Cape Town-based biopharmaceutical company with a distribution centre in Gauteng, has also stepped up by availing its state-of-the-art storage facilities as the country accelerates its inoculation programme.
Nzimande said Biovac is of national strategic importance for increasing productivity and competitiveness in the large molecule production industry. He said this will have a positive impact on the country’s trade balance, job creation and skills development, while strengthening the primary and secondary value chain within the industry.
He added that Biovac is the only licensed vaccine manufacturer for the formulation, filling, packaging and cold chain distribution of vaccines in the country, saying that it currently provides approximately 80% of South Africa’s vaccines. The company has also established successful technology transfers for two global vaccine products, Hexaxim® and Prevenar13®, he said.
Nzimande said the DSI has also “made significant investments in diagnostic tests, targeted surveillance, therapeutic trials for treatment – including prophylactic treatment of health care workers and highly exposed individuals – and the development of monoclonal antibodies, immunoglobulins and vaccines”.
The DSI has also partnered with other sister departments such as the department of health and CSIR. Nzimande said they invested in “data modeling” and together with the two organisations they launched a “situational awareness platform for COVID-19” last year in March.
“The platform provides close to real-time analytics on the coronavirus outbreak per province, district, local municipality and ward. It also provides a single view of the reality of the COVID-19 spread across the country”, said Nzimande.
He said the critical feature of the facility is its mobile visualisation platform called the CMORE app, which community health workers use to record screening data and symptoms and transmit information to the centre. This enables near-live display of the national ‘Household Screening’ and ‘Testing Programme’, he added.
The DSI has also partnered with the department of trade, industry and competition to produce the first ever locally manufactured ventilators. Engineers from the DSI’s entity, the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), applied their expertise to the design and manufacturing of non-invasive ventilators.
The partnership with the department of defence saw the DSI using hydrogen fuel cell technology to provide energy to the Covid-19 field hospital at 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria. Furthermore, said Nzimande, the DSI is working closely with the World Health Organization’s Committee and several other organisations to conduct research on the use of African medicines as immune modulators and COVID-19 therapies.
Nzimande said the research is being carried out through the African Medicines Platform of the DSI’s Indigenous Knowledge-Based Bio-Innovation Programme. “An African Medicines COVID-19 Research Team has been established, comprising scientists and experts from universities, science councils, healer organisations and technology incubators,” he said.
The team is studying a number of South African herbs and formulations with documented evidence for the treatment of respiratory infections. One of these is Artemisia afra, also known as African wormwood, which is a different species from Artemisia annua, which is cultivated in Madagascar, he added.