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Look to the Global South for novel vaccines

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Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, vice-chancellor and principal of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) speaks of moonshot momentsthat could originate from the Global South. Wits and South African scientists are well positioned to charter a course that can catapult us into new worlds of discovery and innovation, knowledge creation and generation, teaching and learning.  

“Wits scholars have the opportunity to lead from the perspective of the Global South, using their distinct expertise, location and context,” says Vilakazi.

Forging new frontiers in healthcare

Wits is home to some of the best scholars in the world who lead globally respected research entities. He notes, “We are using new technologies to leapfrog through aeons of time, and harnessing our local and global connections to conduct research that ultimately remains ahead of the innovation curve.” 

Vaccinology is a prominent area of scientific research and development for Wits scientists, led by Professor Shabir Madhi, Professor Lyn Morris, Dr Thandeka Moyo and Professor Patrick Arbuthnot, amongst others. In addition to various studies to treat and prevent Covid-19, Wits University championed the first two Covid-19 vaccine trials in Africa, while the HIV vaccine development work from Wits is enduring and notable. 

Society can (and often does) turn to universities and experts in challenging moments. From the Wits Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics (Vida) Research Unit to the Antiviral Gene Therapy Research Unit (Agtru) via Wits Enterprise, Wits academics are focused on advancing health solutions for the greater good. 

Peer-reviewed scientific research proves that vaccinating children in South Africa prevents at least 2.5 million deaths, but there remain approximately 1.5 million deaths that could be prevented annually if vaccines were more accessible and widely used. Headed by Professor Shabir Madhi, a global leader in the field of vaccines to prevent paediatric infectious diseases, Wits Vida successfully developed vaccines for infants and pregnant women prior to having to shift its focus to Covid-19 vaccinology. 

Critical conversation and consideration around vaccinology took place in a webinar in which Madhi and Wits alumnus Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong interrogated what is required for the next generation of Covid-19 vaccines. 

Soon-Shiong is a South African-American transplant surgeon, bioscientist and the inventor of the drug Abraxane known for its efficacy against lung, breast and pancreatic cancer. Speaking to Madhi, he emphasised how proud he was to see “Wits and South Africa leading the science to combat Covid” and commented that the country has “the best chance to lead the world in infectious diseases and to orchestrate protection of the entire immune system.” 

Galvanising innovation in health sciences 

A significant move to bolster South Africa’s vaccine manufacturing capacity is seen in a joint venture between Wits and biopharmaceutical company, Biovac. The Agtru (of Wits and the  South African Medical Research Council) partnered with Biovac to develop the skills needed to develop viral vectored vaccines in the country. 

Viral vector-based vaccines differ from most conventional vaccines in that they use the body’s cells to produce antigens. The modified virus is capable of carrying the genetic code for the antigen into many different types of cells, including those of humans, which are then instructed to make large amounts of antigen. This triggers an intended immune response to fight the pathogen. 

The Agtru specialises in the engineering, propagation and assay of adenoviruses, which as carriers (vectors) of genes encoding immunogenic proteins, are gaining favour in the production of viral vectored vaccines, including vaccines against Covid-19.

The Wits/Biovac partnership demonstrates that South Africa has the capability and the skills to tackle global public health challenges. 

The collaboration is expected to improve the capacity and preparation of drug substances for vaccines that target viruses such as Sars-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. If successful, it will be a good example of how leveraging South African partnerships to tap into specialist resources enables regional preparedness for future disease outbreaks.

From pioneering novel medical solutions that target the entire immune system, to enabling the holistic health tech research and development value chain, universities are partners that can work with the private and public sectors ‘for good’, and for the good of effective and accessible healthcare that originates in the Global South.  

For more information about the faculty of health sciences at Wits University, please visit https://www.wits.ac.za/health/.

Find out more about the master of science in medicine in the field of vaccinology (MSc vaccinology) from the Wits University faculty of health sciences. 

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