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KZN scientist finds new way of growing new Covid-19 variant in groundbreaking research

Sandile Cele at the laboratory at the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI) in Durban.Picture: Qiniso Dladla.

Sandile Cele at the laboratory at the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI) in Durban.Picture: Qiniso Dladla.

Published Jan 27, 2021



Durban - A DURBAN medical student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Nelson Mandela School of Medicine and aspiring virologist has come up with a creative way of growing the South African Covid-19 variant.

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Where the virus is usually grown in cells that were isolated from monkeys, this time Sandile Cele found that the new variant (called 501Y.V2) did not grow in these cells and had to try a different way.

“I figured out that I had to first use a human cell line to grow it, and then use these infected cells to infect the monkey cell line,” said Cele.

According to Hannah Keal, communications manager at the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI), Cele “was the key person for this research” and was one of the authors of the new paper which has found that 501Y.V2 can escape antibodies generated from previous infection. This means that antibodies from people who were infected with previous variants may not work well against 501Y.V2.

The Ndwedwe-born 32-year-old is part of a group of leading South African virologists, immunologists, vaccinologists, infectious disease specialists and microbiologists testing whether current vaccines and treatments will still be effective and other specific questions surrounding 501Y.V2.

Led by Dr Alex Sigal from AHRI, Professor Tulio de Oliveira and Dr Richard Lessells from the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform at UKZN, Cele’s “key” contribution has been in growing the 501Y.V2 in the highly specialised Level 3 Biosafety lab.

“This allowed us to test whether antibodies recognise it. We need to understand this to find out if there are implications for the vaccines that were designed for the earlier variants. It feels good that I have contributed to more scientific knowledge about SARS-CoV-2. The only way to deal with a disease is to understand its causative agent,” said Cele.

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Using samples from newly infected patients from all over South Africa, Cele, who is a Research Lab Technologist at AHRI said the work he and the team were doing “is critical to understanding where this pandemic goes next”.

Pictured from left Dr Alex Sigal, Dr Richard Lessells and Dr Tulio de Oliveira, who led the research. They are sitting outside the AHRI at UKZN’s Medical campus.

Cele’s research leader Signal, has likened him to 1975 Nobel laureate and virologist David Baltimore who won the Nobel Prize along with Howard Temin for discovering reverse transcriptase (an enzyme used to generate complementary DNA).

“I think David can be proud of Sandile; he is his scientific grandfather. Can you believe Africa is leading cutting edge research on Covid? Yes, I can. If you see the hard work and passion of our scientists. Sandile is a rising star who spent all his ’holidays’ in a P3+ lab,” said Sigal.

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Cele said he would complete his PhD and continue with this research at AHRI focusing on understanding the emerging 501Y.V2 variants and their escape from antibodies.

Daily News

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