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First African Covid-19 vaccine trial kicks off on SA soil

The first participants in Africa will be vaccinated this week in South Africa, in an effort to find prevention against Coronavirus. The vaccine is made from a virus called ChAdOx1, which has been engineered to express the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. The South African Ox1Cov-19 Vaccine VIDA-Trial will be led by Prof Shabir Madhi of Wits University.

Dr Sandile Buthelezi, the Director-General in the National Department of Health, said the department was “excited” about the launch of the trial and believes it will “go a long way to cement SA’s leadership in the scientific space. With Covid-19 infections increasing every day, the development of the vaccine will be the last solution in the long term, and we are fully behind the team leading this trial”.

Wits University is collaborating with Oxford University on the trial, with funding from the SA Medical Research Council and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The South African study has been approved by the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) and the Human Research Ethics Committee of the University of the Witwatersrand.

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

The vaccine trial team has enrolled 1,950 adult volunteers, ages 18 to 65, all of whom are HIV negative and 50 HIV-positive volunteers. All are intended to remain on the trial for a year. In addition to the SA cohort, 5,000 Brazilians are enrolled, and in earlier phases of the trial, after the vaccine was developed at the Oxford Jenner Institute, 4,000 Britons were enrolled and plans for an additional 10,000 participants are underway.

By vaccinating volunteers with ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, scientists hope to make the human body recognise and develop an immune response that will help stop the SARS-CoV-2 virus from entering human cells and causing Covid-19. Researchers at the sites in Gauteng will begin testing the Covid-19 vaccine in human volunteers and the study may be extended to sites in Cape Town over the next few weeks. “The objective of the trial is to investigate if the vaccine will protect against Covid-19, doesn’t cause unacceptable side effects, and if it induces satisfactory immune responses,” said Wits University.

Madhi said, “SA is nearing the mark that countries like the UK and Italy reached at their peak — when around 35,000 new cases were appearing each week”.He added that this phase of the vaccine trial will be concluded in mid-August and that follow-up will take place for all participants over the next year.

He said this week marks a “landmark moment for SA and Africa at this stage of the Covid-19 pandemic” and that “as we enter winter in SA and pressure increases on public hospitals, now more than ever we need a vaccine to prevent infection by Covid-19”.

“As the world rallies to find health solutions, a South African endeavour for the development of an effective Covid-19 vaccine is testament to our commitment to supporting health-care innovation to save lives,” says Prof Glenda Gray, president and CEO of the SA Medical Research Council.

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