The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC)
African Health Solutions For Global Impact
Thanks to its ethos of change being inevitable but growth intentional, the South African Medical Research Council has a five-decade history and a long-term future mandate.
The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) was established in 1969 to conduct and fund health research, health innovation, development, and research translation. The SAMRC focuses on the top 10 causes of mortality, morbidity, disability, and associated risk factors. The scope of research includes laboratory investigations, preclinical and clinical research, and public health studies.
As part of the GloPID-R Network, the SAMRC is well positioned to enable research collaboration and excellence among scientists on the African continent to respond to global health challenges. For example, the SAMRC is funding health research to develop a rapid point-of-care (POC) diagnostic assay for Ebola virus infection. The development of POC tests would be a medical innovation that would vastly improve the rapid detection of infected patients, clinical decisions, and far more efficient containment measures and patient management. This technology, if successful, would serve as the blueprint for other infection control measures and tools of international public health threats.
Research and innovation in a time of COVID-19
Humanity lives in a constant state of flux with the COVID-19 epidemic as a stark reminder of threats to human health. The SAMRC has been responsive to change, leading research and dialogue on COVID-19 and investing over ZAR100 million (over €5.5 million), with the South African Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), into COVID-19 research and innovation.
As the fight against COVID-19 intensifies, the SAMRC is at the forefront when it comes to public health research. Through its intramural research units, the SAMRC is engaged in a broad spectrum of studies looking into health impacts of COVID-19 across research streams, from gender-based violence (GBV) and impact on substance use, to studies on prevalence, clinical characteristics, and immunologic responses and outcomes of children with suspected or confirmed COVID-19, among other studies.
COVID-19 vaccines, finding solutions to save lives
Since SARS-CoV-2 was identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019, there have been tremendous global efforts to find multiple vaccine candidates to protect against infection and subsequent development of COVID-19 disease. Now the biggest vaccination campaign in history is underway. More than 80 million doses in 59 countries have been administered to date.
Even if early results have found some vaccines to be safe and effective, continuing to conduct trials may bring further benefits for society. The SAMRC and DSI provided ZAR10 million (over €562 000) funding into the first South African Covid-19 vaccine trial; the South African Ox1Cov-19 Vaccine VIDA-Trial announced in June 2020.
The ENSEMBLE trial, a Phase 3 efficacy vaccine trial with the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson, is underway. The SAMRC is participating in the trial as part of the COVID-19 Prevention Network funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Leading the trial are two respected scientists, Professors Glenda Gray, President and CEO of the SAMRC and Linda-Gail Bekker, Deputy Director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre.
South African Vaccine Rollout Programme
Rapid rollout of COVID-19 vaccination will fast-track the return to normality, and South Africa is making every effort to secure enough vaccines to attain herd immunity in the country. South Africa is part of COVAX, the vaccines’ pillar of the access to COVID-19 tools (ACT) Accelerator, co-led by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (Gavi), the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and WHO. In addition to the COVAX facility, South Africa will procure additional vaccines through the African Union (which is chaired by the President of South Africa) and bilateral negotiations with pharmaceutical companies.
However, vaccine hesitancy poses a real challenge to the country’s vaccination efforts. The SAMRC is investigating the scale and determinants of vaccine hesitancy in South Africa so that tailored and targeted strategies can be developed to address it. This would eventually enhance confidence in, and increase demand for, COVID-19 vaccination in South Africa. The SAMRC is also working with the DSI and the African Alliance to implement a communications and public engagement strategy to counter vaccine misinformation.
Genomics and personalised medicine
Genomics research offers a unique opportunity to leapfrog technologies for a better understanding of factors that impact on the health of South Africans and inform strategies to improve their response to diseases.
In July 2019, the SAMRC launched a genomics research centre in partnership with the Beijing Genomics Institute. The Centre conducts genomics research to address the growing disease burden of South Africa and builds towards a future where 4IR is a major component in African healthcare.
More than 50 whole genome experiments have been conducted, and the SAMRC – together with the DSI – has made a number of awards to help in understanding the basis of treatment failure for non-communicable disease treatments in Africa; and setting up a pilot project around HIV elite controllers, where genetics are believed to be a major contributing factor in disease management.
Even in this state of flux, the SAMRC remains responsive to change, continuing its journey of growth and innovation.
The SAMRC is engaged in a wide spectrum of research areas related to COVID- 19.
The GloPID-R Secretariat is a project which receives funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 874667.