Top SA medical team in race to find effective treatment for Covid 19

By Karishma Dipa Time of article published Apr 4, 2020

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Johannesburg - South Africa could be instrumental in finding effective treatment for Covid 19 which has spread to nearly every country in the world in just over four months.

Led by Professor Helen Rees and Dr. Jeremy Nel, the country’s top 30 scientists, researchers and clinicians drawn from eight South African medical schools are set to be part of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) landmark Public Health Emergency Solidarity Trial.

They will also use this platform to honour acclaimed SA Medical Research Council chief specialist scientist Dr Gita Ramjee, who perished from COVID-19 in Durban last week.

“All of my colleagues from my institute as well as those involved in the trial agree that this is for Gita,” Rees told the Saturday Star this week.

Together with nine other countries in the landmark medical trial, they will be testing certain treatments on willing Covid 19 patients in order to determine where any of the drugs are effective in reducing or minimising the effects of the disease.

South Africa is a key member of the international initiative because of its experience with HIV and Aids and Tuberculosis, explained Nel.

“We don't really know yet what the effect of HIV and Covid 19 will be together. South Africa offers an opportunity to work that out. We are also a country in Africa and there is not a lot of data that comes from African countries usually.”

Rees agreed: “Many of our researchers from the solidarity trial are infectious disease specialists who know how to work in communities and know how to follow up with (infected) people because they have been doing it for years during their work with HIV.”

The clinical trial entails five treatment arms: standard of care, where selected COVID 19 volunteer patients receive basic medical attention and support while the other four arms include a randomised treatment regime using a range of different drugs, some of them are currently available in South Africa while others are manufactured abroad. 

“The trial will be able to compare high level treatments from multiple countries to see which is better than standard of care which is no additional therapy apart from the usual support we give to any patient,” Nel explained.

The WHO has been evaluating vaccines that showed potential against MERS and SARS, the two most recent Coronavirus pandemics, ever since COVID-19 was identified,

South Africa is also participating in the Crown Coronation Study to evaluate drugs to prevent infections among health care workers.

There is also a belief that South Africa’s young population could work in the country’s favour.

“If this virus behaves in our population as it's done in China for example, we could expect minor and fewer infections because of our age bands” said Rees.

There is still much to learn about COVID 19.

“That's why the surveillance for Covid 19 is important, we can't tell you definitely that will be true, we have to monitor what is happening in communities continuously in terms of how the outbreak is evolving,” said Rees.

“I think because the government is now making sure that they are going into communities to test people rather than waiting for them to come to the health care facilities, we will get a lot more data from that and we will be in a better position to know if we are limiting the actual cases or whether it's just the lull before the storm kicks off again,” said Nel.

“We have to accept that we are building the ship as we sail it because the information about the science behind Covid 19 is changing on a daily basis,” said Rees. “Our understanding in South Africa about the epidemic is changing on a daily basis so we have to keep looking at everything and adjust.”

The lockdown remains vital to buying time for the research and breaking the spread in transmission.

“The intention of the lockdown is to slow things down and even if this means it takes us longer, we will have fewer deaths, we will have systems in place in communities and at clinics and hospitals who will be able to cope with the spread of the virus,” said Rees.

“I am very impressed in the way that South Africans have pulled together. South Africa has been ahead of things and we would be even further if we had all the equipment,” Rees said.

‘We are not alone in having these problems but we know what we want to do and we are pushing to find all of the equipment that we need to have, including getting local supplies where possible to support our efforts.

“Although our measures and strategies are not perfect, our government is doing incredible stuff under difficult circumstances.”

The biggest concern of all though, as Health Minister Zweli Mkhize pointed out this week is the impending storm of the annual cold flu season as winter sets in.

The Saturday Star 

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