South Africa rolls out Africa’s first trials for COVID-19 vaccine

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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Oxford University rolled out Africa’s first human trials for a potential vaccine against the new coronavirus in South Africa on Wednesday, as cases continue to rise and concerns grow over potential access to life-saving treatments.

The trial, conducted with local partner University of the Witwatersrand, will consist of 2,000 volunteers from 18 to 65 years of age, including some HIV positive patients, who will be monitored for 12 months after vaccination to asses how well the vaccine guards against COVID-19.

“Once 60% of the population, especially the adult population, becomes immune, we expect that effective reproductive rate to go under 1, which basically means the virus will still be around, it will still circulate, but its chain of transmission has been interrupted,” said Shabir Madhi, professor of vaccinology at Wits University and leader of the trial.

Hopes are that South Africa’s involvement in vaccine trials will ensure the continent will have access to an affordable vaccine and not be left at the back of the queue.

South Africa is the second country outside of the United Kingdom to take part in the Oxford trial after Brazil launched its study on Wednesday. The ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine, also known as AZD1222, was originally developed by Oxford University scientists, who are now working with AstraZeneca on development and production.

There are over 4,000 participants enrolled in the UK, with enrollment of an additional 10,000 participants planned, the university said in a statement on Wednesday.

A larger study of the same vaccine in up to 30,000 participants is planned in the United States.

South Africa, which last month began a phased easing of its coronavirus lockdown, has the highest rate of infections on the continent, with confirmed cases at over 100,000 and deaths at more than 2,000.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned Africa could be the next epicentre of the pandemic.

Trying out a new medical intervention in Africa always rings alarm bells because of a history of big pharmaceutical companies using Africans as guinea pigs.

“I feel a little bit scared, but I want to know what is going on with this vaccine so that I can tell my friends and others,” said Junior Mhlongo, a volunteer who received the vaccine at a hospital in Johannesburg.

There are currently no approved vaccines or treatments for the illness caused by the new coronavirus, but more than a dozen vaccines from more than 100 candidates globally are being tested in humans.