Covid-19 research: DSI update

NCOP Education and Technology, Sports, Arts and Culture

09 March 2022
Chairperson: Mr E Nchabeleng (ANC, Limpopo)
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Meeting Summary

The Select Committee convened virtually for a Covid-19 Research update by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI). The presentation covered: African Traditional Medicine; DSI funded research via the SAMRC; Diagnostics; Clinical research; Surveillance; Waste water; mRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub; CSIR activities and HSRC activities.

Members asked the Department to address the confusion about vaccinating and if all DSI staff were vaccinated; when South Africa would stop Covid-19 restrictions and return to normality; if South Africa is capacitated with the necessary expertise to produce Covid-19 vaccines; about SA as a centre of training for Africa; how DSI promotes innovation amongst the youth; and about DSI expanding the mandate of African medicine and of indigenous knowledge-based research.

Meeting report

Covid-19 Research: Department of Science and Innovation briefing
The presentation covered: African Traditional Medicine; DSI funded research via the SAMRC; Diagnostics; Clinical research; Surveillance; Waste water; mRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub; CSIR activities and HSRC activities.

African Traditional Medicine & Indigenous Knowledge-Based Covid-19 Research
Dr Mmboneni Moufhe, DSI: Deputy Director General: Technology Innovation, established the Indigenous Knowledge-Based Covid-19 Research Team, a sub-team of the African Medicines Platform in the Department. The team is constituted by African medicine practitioner organizations, science councils, universities and government department. Two multi-herbal and seven mono-herbal formulations were selected out of twenty medicines historically used in the treatment of respiratory conditions. A total of R15 million was realigned from existing projects on other health conditions under African medicines, nutraceuticals, health infusions, technology transfer and commercialization platforms. Two multi-herbal and two mono-herbal formulations have progressed to clinical trial phase; and one has received a SAHPRA approval.

Forty indigenous knowledge-holders were trained through a six-month Coach Lab Programme on Bio-Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development.

South Africa is the current chair of the WHO-AFRO Regional Expert Committee of African Medicines and Covid-19. R18 million has been leveraged for Phase II clinical trials from the Technology Innovation Agency. R1 million was leveraged to support agro-processing and manufacturing activities for supporting IK-Based SMMEs producing health products (immune modulators and boosters).

R1.7 million was leveraged to support the establishment of a committee to develop a legal framework for inclusion of African medicines in the Essential Medicines List at SAHPRA. The Impact of Covid-19 on African Medicines Practitioners and their participation in Epidemic Preparedness and Response was concluded. Medicinal Cannabis aspects of the Presidential Master-Plan on Industrialization of Cannabis are being investigated for Covid-19 and other priority health conditions.

DSI funded research via the SAMRC
The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) Rapid Response supported COVID-19 research and innovation in support South Africa’s response in March 2020. It initiated three strategic projects focusing on surveillance, epidemiology and community engagement. R147 million DSI funding has been made available for COVID-19 research and innovation since March 2020. The COVID-19 Selection Committee coordinated all projects to ensure funds, regardless of source, were maximized by leveraging synergies among submitted protocols. The Selection Committee makes project funding recommendations to the SAMRC Executive Management Committee (EMC). Currently, there are 30 COVID-19 projects funded by SAMRC from the DSI allocation. Additional funding was made available for Genomic Surveillance and in support of the mRNA hub.

Development of a COVID-19 Point of Care antigen test for the detection of acute infection
• SAHPRA Approved Results in 2-15 minutes
• No lab equipment, specialized trained staff or electricity required
• All components to conduct the test in one box (except a timer and PPE)
• Sample required is a nasopharyngeal sample (most accurate) or a nasal sample
• Made locally, therefore more accessible and cheaper.

Development of RT-PCR Covid-19 diagnostic assay reagents
• Commercial scale biomanufacturing of COVID-19 diagnostic protein reagents compatible with the national testing infrastructure
• Technology localization and development to support the public and private sectors
• mport replacement at > 50% of costs
• SAHPRA approval for manufacturing of the assays obtained -
• Localized manufacturing of COVID diagnostic protein -
• Capacitation of a level 1 BEE SMME through technology transfer.

See presentation for further details

The Chairperson thanked Dr Moufhe for the presentation. He noted neither the Minister or the Deputy Minister had provided an apology for not being present in the meeting. He asked about South Africa’s contribution, particularly the DSI, on the African Union Development Agency (AUDA). This is based on the Agenda 2063 sharing of information. Other countries on the African continent are prepared to share their information whereas in most instances people keep information so that it can be linked only to their own countries as an economic benefit in the future. Most individual academics or professionals from most countries keep information to themselves without offering their facilities to other countries. He asked if South Africa is currently offering South Africa’s facilities to other countries, and availing information and infrastructure for medical research without hiccups. The Chairperson said the question posed focused on SA contribution to other countries as well the allocation of budget towards Agenda 2063.

Mr M Bara (DA, Northern Cape) welcomed the presentation. He asked questions not about the presentation but relevant to the Covid-19 topic. Since the number of people infected by Covid-19 is dropping, does this mean that South Africa is moving out of the deep infectious period and if not, what does it mean? He asked DSI’s standpoint on people who do not want to vaccinate and what risk that has on those who have vaccinated.

The Chairperson added that it would be interesting to know if people in the Department are vaccinated, and how many are not vaccinated, and what are the risks.

Ms D Christians (ANC, Northern Cape) appreciated the presentation. Her questions were mainly on training and capacity. Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines require specialists such as bioprocess genetics, engineers, bio-chemists, pharmacists, mechanical operators. Is SA fully capacitated with necessary expertise to deal with the production of mRNA vaccines? She asked for the timeline from training to production of the first batches of the vaccines. A media release reported that DSI is looking at September 2022 for the first batches to be produced. She asked if this is still the case that those batches could be expected by the end of September. Lastly, she asked if the mRNA Technology Hub is fully operational yet and the progress thus far on training.

Mr I Ntsube (ANC, Free State) said it is a good initiative by the Department to establish African medicine Covid-19 research. He will not engage much on the presentation however he acknowledged the establishment of Indigenous Knowledge-based Covid-19 research. He urged DSI to expand the responsibility and the mandate of African medicine research and not to be focused only on Covid-19 but other diseases SA is facing as a nation. The state must play a central role in its establishment to avoid the contestation and interference of private capital in discharging the mission of the establishment of IK research. He argued that the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) board does not have people who are African medical practitioners. The Minister must consider maintaining a balance in board members because the current board focuses only on the modernization of medicine.

DSI policy priorities enable the modernization of economic sectors such as agriculture, mining, and manufacturing. Over the past years SA has been hit by climate conditions such as drought. He suggested that DSI investigate the usage of artificial creating rainstorms as this is an innovative way to ensure South Africa receives adequate rainfall. This artificial rainstorm is a type of technology which uses drones to create rainstorms in countries such as Dubai.

Mr Ntsobe discussed supporting grassroot innovators. There are many young people with innovative ideas in townships and asked if DSI will consider working with young people. DSI must invest time and put more resources in townships to search for innovation suitable for the development of South Africa and perhaps partner with schools to get innovations as an integral part of South Africa.

He commented on the policy which states that DSI contributes to the development of education and skills development. It is for this reason that education should be taken seriously, especially as drivers of innovation as it is an investment for South Africa.

The Chairperson commented on Mr Ntsobe’s remarks about the private sector getting involved in research when it comes to Covid-19 and other pandemics. He preferred to use the words of one social thinker who said, "Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend”, meaning that in this fight against Covid-19, all hands are welcomed on board but the centre must still hold. There should not be people doing research on the side, particularly medical research, as it would not be safe. There should be guidelines on how to register a company as well as the possibility of sharing basic information of what each company is doing with the licensing authorities.

Ms S Luthuli (EFF, Kwa-Zulu Natal) indicated that there are lots of unanswered and confusing questions in the society about vaccination. Those who are vaccinated are still getting infected and those who are not vaccinated tend to think South Africa is moving away from Covid-19 and therefore seem to believe it is not important to vaccinate anymore. She asked the scientists to explain both the difference and risks related to those who are still not vaccinated. She seconded the Chairperson’s question on the number of DSI staff vaccinated and those who are not. Whatever research DSI is busy with should determine if the vaccines are good or not.

The Chairperson added that this is what they call “leading by example”. He again checked with the Department if the Minister or the Deputy was available, and unfortunately, they were both absent.

Department desponse
Ms Glaudina Loots, DSI Director: Health Innovation, replied about sharing of knowledge and infrastructure. One of the main purposes of the mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub is to help sharing knowledge on development of technologies in South Africa as well as Africa and the whole world at large. There is currently an offer to other African countries to do tech transfer of the diagnostic knowledge and it was communicated through the African Union and Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC). On genomic surveillance of Covid-19 and other viruses, DSI is working closely with other African countries such as Nigeria, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, and our neighbouring countries. The Department is looking into funding these countries and bringing their scientists into South African facilities to ensure they are fully equipped for future pandemics.

On mNRA training and capacity, Ms Loots explained that South Africa is not yet fully capacitated, and it is for this reason that they are working closely with universities to grow capacity. Scientists involved from universities and the mNRA Tech Hub were able to make the first laboratory batches of Covid-19 vaccines. However, there is still a need to look into up-scaling capacity so that the work can move to commercial manufacturing of vaccines. Since DSI has set the timeline for 4 October, it will engage with SAHPRA on doing clinical testing before making vaccines available. It is important to remember that SAHPRA falls under the Department of Health (DoH). Therefore the Minister of Health is responsible for appointing its board but she promised that DoH will be informed of the request.

Dr Muofhe indicated that the net flow of information-sharing is currently from SA to the rest of the continent. He gave an example of the announcement of the Omicron variant, where even though most of the work was done in Botswana, SA managed to share information to other African countries due to its level of development in facilities. For this reason, SA was given the opportunity to be the centre of training and this not only for the SA or Africa, but for other low- and middle-income manufacturers. SA is generally leading compared to other countries when it comes to medical researchers due to lack of facilities. The medical researchers are mostly from institutions such as CSIR, universities as well as technicians. DSI would like to have more budget; however, for now they will work with what they have. The work that DSI is doing in the attainment of Agenda 2063 is in context with their President’s leadership as the appointed person for the Covid-19 response on the African continent. This is about how they try to build and support the capabilities of the whole continent.

Dr Muofhe answered the question whether SA is out of the deep in terms of infections and the risk of not vaccinating. In his response, he warned that Covid-19 is unpredictable and could be highly infectious. For example, there is now another dominant Omicron variant which is highly infectious even though it is not too severe in terms of hospitalization. However, this is not by any means indicative of the end of the pandemic. People need to be very careful and continue to encourage vaccination. Data shows that unvaccinated persons who are hospitalized ultimately die from this Omicron variant.

The Department has done an audit on the kind of skills they require and that they are still talking to several universities to see how they can provide these skills into its system. On Department staff being vaccinated or not, he is not sure of the percentage of the vaccinated but as far as he knows, the bulk of, if not all, employees are vaccinated. Ms Zwane might have more data on that.

On lifting of restrictions, Dr Muofhe explained that this is beyond the DSI mandate because it is influenced by many factors. Restrictions cannot be imposed forever unless there is a reason to do so. For example, the manufacturing of vaccines can pose restrictions to ensure the readiness of the health system. So, the lifting of restrictions depends on people vaccinating so the economy can open.

On Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS), Dr Muofhe indicated that IKS work covers areas way beyond Covid-19 and that this presentation focused only on Covid-19. However, if there is a need for the Department to talk about other ailments, the work of IKS can be investigated. They are looking into remedies, nutraceuticals including some work they have already done on cancer and medicines for HIV. The Department has a much broader spectrum indigenous medicine programme beyond Covid-19, even though the budget indicated was the budget redirected to only support Covid-19 work.

On modernization and cloud seeding science, Dr Muofhe explained that SA used to have such research; however, it has gone a little quiet over the years. There is more to consider besides just getting a cloud in the sky. For example, one should take into consideration the long-term impact of chemical usage on cloud formation. He was not aware that this kind of research is still happening; however, serious capabilities in such areas need to be investigated.

DSI supports grassroots innovation with a focus on rural and township areas. They have what is called Living LABS which is the establishment that will help young people with a platform they can use to display their creativity while venturing into entrepreneurship skills. He reiterated that it is crucial to give young people the necessary tools to be self-sufficient. Their main area of partnership as part of the Department’s policy this year is to focus on strengthening relationships with technical colleges. DSI has considered looking for people with a technical background to get an opportunity to contribute to the economy.

On progress in the implementation of the mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub, Dr Muofhe confirmed there has been some good progress, and for that reason they are on target or even ahead. They are very happy that the Tech Transfer Hub is progressing well.

Ms Gugulethu Zwane, DSI DDG: Institutional Planning and Support, emphasized that the Department encourages vaccination but it is not something that can be disclosed. She advised that they are not at that point yet because the Department is guided by the Department of Public Service and Administration (DPSA), and as for now, the government has not given the directive that all people should vaccinate.

Mr Imraan Patel , DDG: Socio-Economic Innovation Partnerships, replied about grassroots innovation programmes. DSI has a well-developed programme which they still want to grow. However, he explained that it is not simply about getting young people’s ideas; there is a lot more that the Department provides to empower young people.

Chairperson’s closing remarks
The Chairperson recounted that Rev Charles Glass made the first beer here called Lion Lager. One day the Reverend found his son drunk so he beat him and told him, "We make this stuff, we do not take it”. He noted this due to the DSI response on whether department staff were vaccinated. The Chairperson expressed his disappointment about the answers DSI provided. He hoped that DSI is not simply manufacturing vaccines – but not taking them. The meeting took place without the Minister, his Deputy or the Director General. It is for this reason that the questions were challenging to answer because the DSI officials could not commit on matters that need political decisions. The Chairperson asked that reasons be provided why the Deputy Minister was not present.

Dr Moufhe replied that DSI was not made aware why both Minister and Deputy Minister were not present.

The minutes of 23 February 2022 were considered and adopted and the meeting ended.

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