SA’s first black microbiologist Prof Mlisana is now leading SA’s Covid-19 MAC team
Durban - Professor Salim Abdool Karim who stepped down as co-chair of the ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19 has passed the baton to his long time friend and colleague Professor Koleka Mlisana.
Karim, an infectious diseases epidemiologist, has been at the helm of the MAC since its inception last year.
“I always knew that I would not remain on a permanent basis and gave myself a year. The year is up and now I need to shift my focus. I believe the country is in a good place and I am not worried to step back because of the faith I have in the MAC,” he said.
Karim said his focus would now be directed back to his passion – solving HIV.
“Since joining the MAC, I had little time for anything else. When the nation depends on you, there is no room for error. It is a massive responsibility and it was taking me away from my team and work on HIV. I will still work on Covid-19, but in a different capacity,” said Karim.
He said while his MAC duties were no more, he remained the director of CAPRISA and professor to three ivy league schools in the US, Harvard, Columbia and Cornell.
“I have to restart my life and it will take about six months. In a few days, I am off to the US to the universities and will be getting back to my paying job at CAPRISA. I’m just grateful I was never fired for my delinquency, but I think they understood the position I was in,” he said.
Karim said while he would no longer advise government or the MAC, he remained a scientist and should the need arise, he would heed the call.
Last Friday, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize convened a meeting with the MAC where he praised members and expressed his appreciation for their service.
During the meeting, Mkhize confirmed Karim’s desire to return to his work in HIV and accepted his decision to step down.
“He became a trusted figure for so many citizens, who have grown accustomed to his singular ability of explaining complex scientific concepts in simple terms and as a country we want to convey our deep appreciation for his exceptional stewardship during one of the greatest crises faced by humanity. Even under enormous pressure, he always received everyone with his warm smile and reassuring presence,” said Mkhize.
This week, Mkhize announced that Mlisana would be Karim’s successor and join Professor Marian Jacobs as the co-chair of the MAC on Covid-19.
“I have every confidence in Professor Mlisana’s expertise and skill,” said Mkhize.
Mlisana’s journey began as the country’s first black microbiologist and later earned her professorship from her alma mata the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
She said the MAC was not new territory for her as she has chaired the subcommittee on pathology/laboratory since its inception. Nor were positions of leadership.
She currently serves as a member of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on antimicrobial resistance and holds the position of executive manager of Academic Affairs, Research and Quality Assurance at the National Health Laboratory Service.
Prior to this, Mlisana was the head of the medical microbiology department at UKZN and Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital.
“I hope I can live up to the faith and standard that everyone else is holding me to. This was a decision that I almost did not want to make, I was unsure if I could do it, but with the support and counsel of my colleagues, friends, husband and three children, I took the plunge. I have no regrets in my career because of them,” said Mlisana.
Mlisana said she knew that Karim was to step down and he had named her as his successor.
“I was there with Salim when CAPRISA was founded; he, myself and Minister Mkhize were in medical school together at what is now UKZN. I met my husband and Salim met his wife there. We have long histories and know what each other is made of and I had to believe in myself just as much as they believed in me,” she said.