Professor Martin Veller, Dean of Health Sciences at Wits, a senior clinician in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Wits University volunteers to participate in South Africa’s first Covid-19 vaccine trial at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital. Picture: Daniel Born
Professor Martin Veller, Dean of Health Sciences at Wits, a senior clinician in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Wits University volunteers to participate in South Africa’s first Covid-19 vaccine trial at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital. Picture: Daniel Born

Wits doctors, professors volunteer for Covid-19 vaccine trial

By Botho Molosankwe Time of article published Jul 16, 2020

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Johannesburg - Senior clinicians in the Faculty of Health Sciences at University of the Witwatersrand have volunteered to participate in South Africa’s first Covid-19 vaccine trial.

The university said the volunteers, comprising doctor and professors, were screened last week Friday and those found eligible to participate in the trail were vaccinated on Tuesday at the Soweto trial site in Johannesburg.

One of the volunteers said their participation as doctors and medical scientists, should provide comfort that the trial is safe.

Wits Professor of Vaccinology, Shabir Madhi, who leads the vaccine trial, said the legacy of vaccines showed they didn't necessarily work similarly across different populations.

“We really need to generate data applicable to the local context. A number of past vaccines have been shown to be highly effective in high-income settings, but when evaluated in low- and middle-income settings (like South Africa], the vaccines were found to be much less effective and, at times, not effective at all,” she said.

“If we want to make informed decisions at an early stage about whether these vaccines are going to benefit people in South Africa, it’s critical that we undertake the clinical evaluation during the start of the entire programme, rather than at the latter stage. Waiting for results to come in from other studies would just lead to a lag in terms of the timing when vaccines would be introduced in South Africa as well as other low- and middle-income countries.”

Dr June Fabian, nephrologist and Research Director at the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre, is one of the volunteers.

Explaining her motivation for taking part in this trial, Fabian said for her it was about supporting local scientists in order to enable them to do world-class science. She was also one of the scientists involved in the world's first intentional HIV positive liver transplant in 2018.

"I think it’s amazing that South Africa is a Covid-19 vaccine trial site and to be a part of that is very exciting. We must support each other as a Wits community and we must support our colleagues," she said.

Leading HIV clinician, Professor Francois Venter, Divisional Director of Ezintsha at the institution, said he had enough confidence in the science to put himself on the line to help the country find a vaccine for the virus that continued to wreak havoc worldwide.

"The collection of Wits Faculty, between them, have first-authored some of the highest-impact medical articles on pandemics and it’s important to demonstrate how urgent and safe these (Covid-19 vaccine) studies are."

Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Wits and Professor of Surgery, Martin Veller said he felt strongly that Africa needed to be involved in vaccine development so there was a moral obligation for the continent to be able to access the vaccine once it became available. 

Speaking of his involvement in the trial, Veller said: “The coronavirus pandemic has caused massive disruption in the world to public health and economies. As a consequence, a vaccine is probably the only way to manage in the medium term. We need to get a trial done quickly. Anyone who can enroll, and especially we in the healthcare fraternity who understand the risks, should.”

According to Dr Aslam Dasoo, convener of the Progressive Health Forum, a national advocacy network of health professionals, activists and experts the vaccine trial is part of a multi-centre global effort to meet the greatest threat to humanity in living memory. 

Knowing that a vaccine is the best possible means of mitigating the global impact of the pandemic, he said, makes it a great privilege for him  to participate in the study.  

"For those who have expressed anxiety at the trial being conducted here, my enrolment, together with other doctors and medical scientists, should provide comfort that the trial is safe. More importantly, it is a signal that South Africa is not only at the forefront of this scientific effort, but also makes it more likely that the people of our continent will benefit from a future vaccine,” says Dasoo.

Wits still wants more volunteers to take part in the trial, and if you'd like to participate you can send an email to [email protected] or call 072 055 1249 (Soweto area) / 074 800 7772 (Tshwane area) / 064 850 0744 (Hillbrow area).

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