As explained in a previous edition of PDBY, the University of Oxford’s Oxford Vaccine Group, in collaboration with The Jenner Group, have been working on running a vaccine trial to combat the novel coronavirus that led to the widespread outbreak of COVID-19. This trial is being carried out across various sites across the United Kingdom. Many other countries are also involved with this trial, including the United States, India, Brazil, and South Africa.

The team had begun working on the vaccine in January and began testing it on humans in April. Oxford’s Jenner Institute identified ChAdOx1, a chimpanzee Adenovirus vaccine vector, as the strongest and most suitable vaccine technology that can be utilised for a vaccine against the SARS-CoV2 virus, as this vector produces a powerful immune response in each dose, making it safer for use on children, senior citizens, and people with underlying conditions. Vaccine trials have opened in various testing countries to people aged 18-55 to begin testing out the ChAdOx1 nCoV vaccine. This subsequently led to the University of Oxford partnership with AstraZeneca, United Kingdom-based global biopharmaceutical corporation, to assist with the development, manufacture, and possibly, the distribution of the vaccine. The Oxford vaccine trials have so far proven to be among the most successful COVID-19 vaccines, with the clinical trials having already made their way to Phase II/III of the trials – the first phase of the trial having cleared the vaccine of safety concerns.

However, the Oxford Vaccine trials were globally brought to a grinding halt after a participant in the United Kingdom developed what was suspected as an adverse and unexplained reactionary illness to the vaccine, casting some doubt over this vaccine. However, Oxford and AstraZeneca said this was a usual occurrence, describing this as ‘routine.’ A spokesperson for the pharmaceutical establishment stated that it was “a routine action which had to happen” in events where an unexplained illness was detected in one of the trials and volunteers. “In large trials, illnesses will happen by chance but must be independently reviewed to check this carefully”.

This only seemed to be a bump in the road, as the vaccine trials are back on track. In the beginning of September, the review of safety data was carried out by independent safety review committees and national regulators, declaring the trials safe enough to resume. All across the world, more than 18 000 people have signed up to be participants in the vaccine trials in what is panning out to be one of the world’s biggest hopes of a vaccine against this invisible enemy that the world has waged war against.

South Africa’s involvement with the COVID-19 Vaccine trials.

South Africa is in the top 10 most infected countries in the world, having recorded well over 650 000 cases of COVID-19. This, together with the fact that South Africa sits amongst the 20 countries with the highest number of recorded deaths, gradually edging closer to 16 000, makes for very sobering statistics, easily placing South Africa’s statistics at the highest on the African continent. This gave reason for more attention to be placed on the African continent for its involvement in preventing and treating COVID-19. As such, South Africa has had an active role in the global involvement in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, through collaborations that the president and CEO of the South African Medical Research Council, Prof. Glenda Gray, termed as being a “national imperative”.

The first COVID-19 vaccine trials South Africa participated in was the South African Ox1Cov-19 vaccine VIDA-Trial. The University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, in partnership with Oxford University, launched their clinical trials for a vaccine against the COVID-19 disease in South Africa in June. Under the leadership of Prof. Shabir Madhi, professor of vaccinology at Wits, the vaccine trials have already had human trials take place, with around 2000 people volunteering to take part in this vaccine trial, which has so far been making strides in the fight against the coronavirus on the continent. The South African trial was also affected by the halt in testing globally due to the unexpected illness of a volunteer in the UK, but the efforts had already been back in full swing at the time of publication.

South Africa began a second COVID-19 vaccine trial in August. Once more, the South African effort was headed up by Wits University, under the leadership of Prof. Shabir Madhi. By late August, volunteer screenings had already been underway. The trial, known as the NVX-CoV2373 trial, was produced by Maryland-based American biotech company, Novavax. This vaccine uses technology previously used in the fight against the flu virus, as well as experimental vaccines used in combating Ebola, and the Respiratory Syncytial Virus. So far, the trial has recruited nearly 3000 volunteers in South Africa, aged between 18 and 65, and is currently entering Phase II in South Africa, and Phase III globally. This has also seen institutes like the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University partake in these efforts. The Novavax project is known for the fact that the NASDAQ-listed pharmaceutical company has received $1.6 billion in financial backing from the United States government, and a grant of up to $89 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – with a $15 million grant dedicated to the South African vaccine efforts.

Finally, South Africa has formed a part of the Johnson and Johnson experimental trials. The Johnson and Johnson Ad26.COV2-S trial is being spearheaded by Prof. Gray and Professor Linda-Gail Bekker, who is the COO of the Desmond Tutu Health Foundation at the University of Cape Town’s Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, named as the principal investigators of this trial. The trial has already been undergoing the process of approval from the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority and various ethics committees. The trial is a part of Operation Warp Speed, an initiative by the US government that seeks to deliver up to 300 million doses of a vaccine by January 2021. Locally, Prof. Gray said that the South African Medical Research Council, together with the Department of Science and Innovation in South Africa, will be funding all the COVID-19 research and provide funds for the Ad26.COV2-S trial. The vaccine candidate in question for the Johnson and Johnson trial is made from the Adenovirus, which causes the common cold. These trials have already entered Phase I/II of human studies in the United States and Belgium.

Illustration: Promise Zulu

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