South African Department of Science & Innovation COVID-19 research under way

These updates are republished press releases and communications from members of the Science|Business Network

The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) is working with several partners to investigate the efficacy of repurposing existing drugs to assist in halting the COVID-19 virus, said the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande.

Addressing an interministerial media briefing on government's response to the COVID-19 virus, Dr Nzimande said that the Department had set aside R12 million and would redirect an additional R30 million for research interventions to assist in dealing with the spread of the virus.  

The briefing today follows the announcement of a national lockdown by President Cyril Ramaphosa yesterday, among rapidly increasing infection figures.  South Africa has seen a leap in confirmed coronavirus cases, with the total now at 554, up by 152 from Monday.

South Africa will be on lockdown for three weeks, starting on Thursday, 26 March, at midnight.

The Minister told the media that the DSI, its entities and other stakeholders were working on several projects to support COVID-19 interventions. He added that the World Health Organization was coordinating and monitoring several trials being carried out internationally.

"It is anticipated that, by June, an effective treatment could be available," said the Minister, emphasising that there was currently no vaccine to treat COVID-19. However, preliminary work on the development of vaccines had started with the University of Cape Town, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Biovac.

"Progress is expected over the next 18 months," said Dr Blade Nzimande.

Referring to other diagnostic tools, the Minister said that the South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis (SACEMA) was currently engaging with various sources of data and models, refining assumptions with a view of producing an updated model by Friday.

SACEMA is a national research centre dedicated to modelling and analysis to improve health in South Africa and across the African continent.

The Minister added that it had become urgent to manufacture reagents for testing kits locally, as they were currently being imported. The lockdowns being implemented globally and border restrictions to contain the rapid spread of COVID-19 also threatens the supply.  

The DSI has negotiated the repurposing of various facilities and labs to respond to the outbreak. Entities in line to assist include Biovac, the Centre of Excellence in TB research, the Centre for Proteomic and Genomic Research and Afrigen Bio. Discussions to facilitate the accreditation of some of the facilities to produce reagents are under way.

The Minister told the media that one of the areas in which the national system of innovation (NSI) could make a significant impact in the crisis was enhancing the role of data and evidence in supporting the response to COVID-19.

Currently, key decision-making processes in the Department of Health, the Presidency and the National Command Centre are drawing on the NSI's existing data and capabilities.

"There is now widespread agreement on the need for a central situational awareness platform, which will provide a single view of the reality. The technology to rapidly deploy such a situational awareness platform exists at the CSIR (the CMORE system) and is now being customised to service the COVID-19 response. A facility is currently being established at the CSIR, but can easily be moved should this be required," said the Minister.

The CMORE system is designed to serve a wide range of users, from the decision-making hierarchy to different types of first responders (health workers, police and the army).  An immediate functionality requested by the Department of Health for activation is to enable the 3 000 health workers involved in tracking and testing to transmit essential information to a central point via their cellphones.

Through complementary processes, the DSI and the Department of Health have brought the research community (specifically the modelling community) together for enhanced cooperation. The researchers are currently splitting into various workstreams bringing together similar capabilities, taking into account that different kinds of models exist. Over the next 48 hours, decisions will be made on the nature of the workstreams, the information they provide, the recipients of this information, the frequency of information provision, quality control and peer review management.

This release was first published  24 March 2020 by the South African Department for Science & Innovation.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up