CORONAVIRUS

Department of Higher Education pumps R68m into Covid-19 research and vaccine development

By Sandisiwe Shoba 18 January 2021

(Illustrative image | Sources: Rawpixel)

The Department of Higher Education has invested more than R68m into Covid-19 research and vaccine development. A further R25m has been allocated to the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (Krisp) to combat SARS-CoV-2 variants.

The Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation has invested R68,766,000 towards Covid-19 research and development activities. 

Speaking at a press briefing on the latest developments in the post-school sector on Monday, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande said the funding had been reprioritised from the 2019/20 and 2020/21 Budget allocations. 

“These funds were approved to support Covid-19 research and development in the areas of diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines, surveillance and epidemiology, including genomic epidemiology,” said the minister. 

The department is funding two vaccine-related studies. 

The first is looking into plant-based manufacturing of antibodies for Covid-19, whose aims include speeding up vaccine development. 

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has entered into an agreement with Kentucky Biological Products (KBP) to potentially manufacture the antigen of its vaccine and has expressed an interest in testing its vaccine in South Africa. The KBP vaccine is manufactured using specific tobacco products. R2.4-million has been invested into this initiative. 

The second is the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine trial led by Wits University and co-funded by the South African Medical Research Council. 

“This is part of an international study aimed at finding a vaccine that will prevent infection by the virus that causes Covid-19, but also assessing whether the vaccines will be effective in local settings,” said Nzimande. 

The vaccine candidate, ChAdOx1 SARS-CoV-2, was developed at the Oxford University Jenner Institute in collaboration with AstraZeneca and is under trial in several countries, including South Africa, Brazil and the UK.

The vaccine has a lesser efficacy compared with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines (64% as opposed to 94%), but has been recommended for developing countries as it is cheaper and easier to transport, store and distribute. 

The Department has contributed R4.5 million towards this study. 

Nzimande said that Biovac, a bio-pharmaceutical company in which the department owns a 47.5% stake, now has vaccine manufacturing capabilities. In 2020 an initiative was co-launched with pharmaceutical company Sanofi to produce Hexaxim, the world’s first fully liquid (6-in-1) vaccine which protects against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis B, Haemophilus influenzae type B, and poliomyelitis.

A further R25-million is going to the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (Krisp) over the next 12 months to sequence 10,000 SARS-CoV-2 genomes in South Africa and the rest of the African continent.

“The funding will be used to understand the spread of Covid-19 and other virus lineages in Africa, and to support clinical and laboratory investigations of genomic variations in the country,” said Nzimande. 

A genomics team led by Krisp discovered the new variant dubbed 501Y.V2 in the Eastern Cape in December 2020. 

Elaborating on the research being conducted by Krisp, Higher Education department Director-General Phil Mjwara said three studies were under way:

“The first one is they have taken samples of the patients who were Covid positive in the first wave to check whether the new variant neutralises or reduces antibodies. The second one is they’ve also taken samples of the patients who tested positive from this new variant and they are conducting studies on whether the antibodies reduce or remain the same, and the third study they are conducting is whether the current vaccines are able to neutralise the variant that we have in South Africa,” said Mjwara. 

Preliminary results from these studies are available, but will be announced in due course.

Nzimande also took the opportunity to condemn politicians and public figures for spreading misinformation about vaccination. 

Vaccines go through rigorous scientific testing and this thing that 5G is bringing Covid-19 is not true and many other stories that are being told about Covid-19 are not true. We urge our people to listen to scientists,” Nzimande said. DM

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