World-class scientist Professor Glenda Gray – CEO of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), which funds and supports Covid-19 research – says if South Africa is lucky, we could see Covid-19 vaccine trials start later this year.
Gray is also a member of the government’s advisory committee.
Some of South Africa’s best minds have banded together to make a meaningful contribution to Covid-19 research.
Speaking to News24, Gray explained that her background in HIV vaccine research had given her a strong foundation to tackle Covid-19.
“Because of my involvement in HIV vaccines, I am working with the global endeavor to try and evaluate Covid-19 vaccines in South Africa, so this is a long-term project and hopefully we can start to see a movement of interest in global initiatives to help us evaluate vaccines,” she said.
These initiatives are important in the face of a lack of evidence.
The organisation currently funds research to investigate how Covid-19 plays out in patients who also have HIV or TB, and is also interested in geospatial hotspots to study how the virus is moving across the country.
The world is still learning about immune responses to Covid-19 and what kind of reactions certain treatments have to the virus, Gray said.
“All we have at this time are non-pharmaceutical interventions. We don’t have drugs, we don’t have monoclonal antibodies and we don’t have vaccines. All we have is repurposed drugs… for Covid-19. We need monoclonal antibodies, we need vaccines and we need antivirals for this epidemic.”
These are some of the interventions Gray, along with the SAMRC, has funded and contributed to interventions for vaccines, immune response research and antivirals.
So far, studies suggest our IgM – a type of antibody – has “low affinity to the antigens of the virus”, Gray said.
She added that it is hard to say if this will result in a long-lasting immunity to the virus.
“If [for example] our immune response to this virus is muted… that means it may be difficult to achieve herd immunity and means we are predisposed to infection once our immune response has gone away. So, that we are still trying to unravel.”
Immune system research
Plans to get involved in monoclonal antibody research and antiviral testing for Covid-19 was also in the works, Gray said.
This would involve searching for people who had been infected with Covid-19, but had recovered.
These people might develop antibodies, or an immune system response, which could be special and could neutralise the virus.
“You can clone these antibodies from this person and manufacture it so you can give it to other people. These can either be used as a therapy or as a prevention,” Gray explained.
She added that this would involve following up with people who recover from Covid-19 to study their blood for these special antibodies.
The SAMRC is in the process of creating protocols to keep in touch with recovered Covid-19 patients.
“We’ve brought together a consortium to look at protocols to follow up with people who have recovered from Covid-19, to see whether we can identify anything special in their blood that could help other people, as well as looking at some of the neutralisation, and trying to understand the immunology of Covid-19,” Gray said.
“South Africa would be a great place [to do this] because we have experience with HIV to do monoclonal antibody infusions, so we could use our expertise from that,” Gray said.
“Hopefully, we would be able to do studies like that later in the year.”
Gray explained that she was in conversation with people who had developed antivirals for other infections, to see whether they could be effective against Covid-19.
“Those are all in the pipeline, but we are six months away from even evaluating them in South Africa, if we are lucky.
“If we are lucky, a year from that we’ll be able to understand whether these vaccines have a potential or not, if there is a global response.
“We need a global endeavor to find the solutions, particularly around vaccines, because we need lots of countries to be involved quickly.”
She added that they were also looking at claims made about Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG), primarily used to treat TB, and hydroxychloroquine – an antimalarial drug – as well as other possible treatments, to see if they could in fact help treat Covid-19.
Science-led response and limitations
While there were limitations to these scientific approaches, including a lack of testing and research about the virus, Gray said that it was still important to contribute and fill this gap so that South Africa could respond accordingly to the pandemic.
“We’ve been able to fund these things and work with scientists in South Africa to be able to rapidly react to the epidemic… to try and inform policy, find a solution for treatment and help the government’s response in terms of testing and management of Covid-19 once things get into the hospital,” Gray said.
“As [Health] Minister Zweli Mkhize said, this is a long march. This is our first battle. Are we going to win the war? We don’t know. We’re doing the best that we can with the available information.
“The most important thing is for us to keep learning and keep on being able to change our minds and our directions, based on the data that we have each day.”