SA tests drugs for COVID-19 treatment

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

A number of existing drugs are being re-purposed and tested for efficacy of the potential treatment for the Coronavirus (COVID-19).

“Preliminary work on the development of vaccines has started with University of Cape Town (UCT), Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Biovac. Progress is expected in over 18 months,” said Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, Dr Blade Nzimande.

Addressing a media briefing on Tuesday in Tshwane, the Minister said current trials happening internationally coordinated by the World Health Organization are being monitored.

“South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis (SACEMA) A is currently engaging with other sources of data and modelling groups, refining their assumptions with a view to produce an updated model of the spread of the epidemic over time by Friday,” Nzimande said.

The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) has already availed R12 million and will redirect an additional R30 million.  

“It has become urgent to locally manufacture reagents for testing kits. These are currently being imported and the lockdown may threaten access to supply,” the Minister said.

The Department of Science and Technology has negotiated the repurposing of various facilities and labs to respond to the outbreak.

The entities in line to assist include Biovac, Centres of Excellence in TB research, Centre of Proteomic and Genomic Research (CPGR) and Afrigen Bio.

“Discussions are on to facilitate accreditation of some of the facilities to produce reagents. The team will be discussing budget requirements this afternoon,” he said.

Role of data and evidence

The Minister said one of the areas that have emerged where the National System of Innovation (NSI) can make significant impact with respect to the COVID-19 crisis, is to enhance the role of data and evidence in supporting the response to the COVID-19 emergency.

Currently, key decision-making processes including work being done by the Department of Health, the Presidency, as well as the National Command Centre has drawn on the existing data and evidence capabilities of the NSI.

“There is now widespread agreement on the need for a central situational awareness platform which will provide a single view of the reality. The technology to rapidly deploy such a situational awareness platform exist at the CSIR (the CMORE system) and is now being customized to service the COVID-19 response,” the Minister said.

The facility is currently being established at the CSIR but can easily be moved should this be required.

Depending on permissions granted to certain users, parts of the data can be accessed remotely.

“The CMORE team is currently getting a sense of the information requirements of key users, starting with the Department of Health so as to demonstrate how the CMORE system works.

“The functionality of the CMORE system is designed to service a wide range of users, whether these are in a decision hierarchy as well as different types of first responders (health workers, police, the army),” Nzimande said.

He said an immediate functionality requested by the Department of Health for activation is to provide the 3 000 health workers involved in tracking and testing to be able to transmit essential information to a central point via their cell phones.

The CSIR team has been requested to have a facility that can be shown to people in the next 24 hours as this will provide the impetus for decision needs to be codified and share with the team for implementation.

“Through complementary processes by the DSI and the Department of Health, the research community specifically the modelling community has been brought together for enhanced cooperation.

“The researchers are currently splitting into various work streams bringing together like capabilities taking into account that different models exist. Over the next 48 hours, the nature of the work streams, what information they provide, to whom, and at what frequency, and how is quality control and peer review managed will be finalised,” he said.

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) was alerted to the urgency expressed by the President for an assessment based on data, on the way in which South Africans view current developments.

“Normal research processes including the need to get ethics clearance resulted in the work only starting yesterday,” he said. –