South African Medical Research Council: leading research and innovation in a time of COVID-19
Since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) has been responsive to change, leading research and dialogue on the pandemic. It also continued with pioneering cutting-edge medical innovations and programmes to support the South African Government’s response to the pandemic and improve the quality of life and health status of people in South Africa.
Over 260 million South African Rand has been raised and allocated to more than 50 COVID-19 research and development projects, including 30 projects that are supported with South African Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) funds. The SAMRC, in partnership with the DSI and Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), is funding several COVID-19 diagnostic product development projects and has co-funded the participation of South Africa in vital global studies on COVID-19 treatment and prevention, including the Solidarity Trial, the CROWN Coronation study, and several vaccine studies.
The SAMRC has also supported studies on COVID-19 surveillance and epidemiology that have laid the foundation for enhanced infection control practices in healthcare settings, contributed to community surveillance initiatives and improved understanding of the pandemic in South Africa.
The SAMRC has also played a key role in initiating the national rollout of COVID-19 vaccination in South Africa through an implementation study known as Sisonke. “Sisonke” is a South African word meaning “together”. Through the Sisonke Study, the SAMRC has enabled the government to make the Ad26.COV2.S COVID-19 vaccine (JnJ vaccine) immediately available to healthcare workers using a research programme. Sisonke is not the same as a clinical trial. Rather it was a way that research could help to make a vaccine available while the licensing process took place.
As part of the initial phase of the national vaccine programme, up to 500,000 healthcare workers have been vaccinated through this programme at over 122 vaccination sites nationwide. This was necessary to maintain a healthy work force to deal with the predicted third wave of COVID-19 infections and admissions, which is expected to start in May-June 2021.
Halfway through, the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) temporarily suspended the Sisonke study to investigate extremely rare and severe blood clots detected in six out of about 6.8 million people vaccinated with the JnJ vaccine in the United States of America. However, the study resumed after approval was granted to proceed with an amended protocol to augment safety and oversight. This time, more rigorous pre-vaccination screening and post-vaccination monitoring of participants at risk of blood clotting disorders were introduced after the resumption.
Although the decision to pause the Sisonke Study initially precipitated a rise in vaccine hesitancy and a fall in demand for COVID-19 vaccination, healthcare workers were later queuing in large numbers at vaccination sites across the country in the last week of the study, seizing the chance to get vaccinated ahead of the national rollout, which started on Monday 17 May 2021. This was largely achieved through widespread public and participant (both past and future) communication, education of vaccination staff and other healthcare workers, and an increase in the number of vaccination sites from the initial 46 to 93 across the country, including in rural areas.