Africa’s first COVID-19 vaccine trials

AFRICA’s first clinical trials for a vaccine to cure against COVID-19 which has killed thousands and infected millions starts this week in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The University of Witwatersrand has announced that the first participants in the trials – formally titled the South African Ox1Cov-19 Vaccine VIDA-Trial, will be vaccinated this week.

Shabir Madhi, Professor of Vaccinology at Wits University and Director of the South Africa Medical Research Council (SAMRC) Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics Research Unit (VIDA), leads the South African Ox1Cov-19 Vaccine VIDA-Trial.

Professor Shabir Madhi, Professor of Vaccinology at Wits University and Director of the South Africa Medical Research Council (SAMRC) Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics Research Unit (VIDA), leads the South African Ox1Cov-19 Vaccine VIDA-Trial. ©WITS UNIVERSITY
Professor Shabir Madhi

Wits University is collaborating with the University of Oxford and the Oxford Jenner Institute on the South African trial.

“This is a landmark moment for South Africa and Africa at this stage of the Covid-19 pandemic. As we enter winter in South Africa and pressure increases on public hospitals, now more than ever we need a vaccine to prevent infection by Covid-19,” said Madhi at the launch of the South African Ox1Cov-19 Vaccine VIDA-Trial, which is being run at multiple sites in South Africa.

“We began screening participants for the South African Oxford 1 Covid-19 vaccine trial last week and the first participants will be vaccinated this week,” says Madhi, who is also the National Research Foundation/Department of Science and Innovation SARChI (South African Research Chairs Initiative) Chair in Vaccine-Preventable Diseases, based at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-Principal and Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Postgraduate Affairs at the Wits University, who facilitated the virtual press conference, said: “Wits University identified vaccinology as a key institutional flagship project in 2016. Vaccines are amongst the most powerful tools to mitigate life-threatening diseases. Without a vaccine against Covid-19, there will likely be ongoing contagion, causing severe illness and death. Wits is committed to developing a vaccine to save lives in collaboration with the University of Oxford.”

Wits university announced that prior to launch, the South African study was subject to rigorous review and has been approved by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority and the Human Research Ethics Committee of the University of the Witwatersrand. “Furthermore, after eliciting and considering public comment, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) approved the import of the investigational vaccine for use in the trial,” the university said in a statement.

The vaccine is already being evaluated in a large clinical trial in the UK where more than 4,000 participants have already been enrolled. In addition to the South African study, similar and related studies are about to start in Brazil. An even larger study of the same vaccine of up to 30,000 participants is planned in the USA.

Professor Helen Rees, Chair of SAHPRA and Executive Director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (Wits RHI).
Professor Helen Rees

“It is essential that vaccine studies are performed in southern hemisphere countries, including in the African region, concurrently with studies in northern hemisphere countries,” says Professor Helen Rees, Chair of SAHPRA and Executive Director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (Wits RHI). 

“This allows evaluation of the efficacy and safety of candidate vaccines to be assessed in a global context, failing which the introduction of many life-saving vaccines into public immunization programs for low-middle income countries frequently lags behind those in high-income countries.”

Rees also co-directs the Wits African Leadership in Vaccinology Excellence (ALIVE) flagship programme and is engaged in global discussions with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and the World Health Organization to ensure equitable access for all countries, including those in Africa, should a successful vaccine be developed.

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