University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) vaccinology professor Shabir Madhi has announced the start of the first clinical trials for a COVID-19 vaccine in South Africa.
Madhi said that Wits is collaborating with the University of Oxford to begin vaccinating South Africans and determine the efficacy of the Ox1Cov-19 vaccine in the country.
“This is a landmark moment for South Africa and Africa at this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Madhi said.
“As we enter winter in South Africa and pressure increases on public hospitals, now more than ever we need a vaccine to prevent infection by COVID-19.”
“We began screening participants for the South African Oxford 1 COVID-19 vaccine trial last week and the first participants will be vaccinated this week,” he said.
The South African vaccine trial has been subject to rigorous review, the university said, and it has been approved by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) and the Human Research Ethics Committee of the University of the Witwatersrand.
The vaccine is already being evaluated in a large clinical trial in the UK where more than 4,000 participants have already been enrolled.
In addition to the South African study, similar studies are about to start in Brazil and the United States.
The South African vaccine trial
The technical name of the vaccine being tested in South Africa is ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, as it is made from a virus called ChAdOx1, which is a weakened and non-replicating version of a common cold virus (adenovirus).
This vaccine has been engineered to express the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.
The spike glycoprotein is usually found on the surface of the novel coronavirus and is what gives the coronavirus its distinct spiky appearance.
These spikes play an important role in enabling COVID-19 infections, as the virus which causes COVID-19 uses this spike protein to bind to ACE2 receptors on human cells.
Researchers have shown that antibodies produced against sections of the spike protein after natural infection are able to kill the virus when tested in the laboratory.
Scientists hope that by vaccinating South Africans who volunteer for the vaccine trial, they will be able to train their bodies to develop an immune response to the spike glycoprotein and subsequently prevent COVID-19 infection.
“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 of supporting healthcare innovation to save lives,” said South African Medical Research Council president Professor Glenda Gray.
“The National Department of Health is excited at the launch of this vaccine trial, which will go a long way to cement South Africa’s leadership in the scientific space,” said National Department of Health director-general Sandile Buthulezi.
“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.”