In response to the national health emergency imposed by the outbreak of COVID-19 in South Africa, many staff members and students from the University of Pretoria (UP) have made active contributions to combat the outbreak on the frontlines and behind the scenes. Professor Tiaan de Jager, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences asserted that “The Faculty of Health Sciences is at the forefront of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic” and referred to numerous initiatives formulated by faculty members.
The Faculty of Health Sciences has deployed members from all four of its schools, namely Dentistry, Healthcare Sciences, Health Systems and Public Health, and Medicine to combat the COVID-19 outbreak. The work that they do comprises of active screenings and laboratory-based testing, frontline healthcare, emergency medicine, and infection control. The faculty has also formulated the emergence of community-based services such as helplines and conduction of tests at rural locations.
Professor Anton Stoltz, the Head of Infectious Diseases in the school of medicine, is currently part of UP’s COVID-19 taskforce. Prof. Stoltz is involved in the planning and implementation processes regarding the successful housing of patients afflicted with COVID-19 at Steve Biko Academic Hospital. Steve Biko Academic Hospital is one of three hospitals in Gauteng tasked with housing COVID-19 positive patients. Citing the negative-pressure feature of the isolation ward, Prof. Stoltz has assured members of the public of the hospital’s preparedness and patient management. The negatively pressurised isolation ward ensures that there is no influx of air from the isolation ward, into the general ward.
“The Faculty of Health Sciences has deployed members from all four of its schools […] to combat the COVID-19 outbreak“
Previously, Prof. Stoltz has also rendered his services in preparation for the potential Ebola outbreak in South Africa. Mmane Boikanyo, the Head of Media and Communications at the Faculty of Health Sciences, confirmed that Prof. Stoltz is currently involved in international studies relating to COVID-19.
It was previously reported by PDBY that Prof. Stoltz was involved in a study, published by Lancet, that devised a revolutionary mask technology allowing early detection of Tuberculosis (TB) in patients. In speaking about the potentiality of the technology to detect other viruses, Prof. Stoltz confirmed that his team had already started testing the technology for respiratory viruses and is currently writing a protocol for evaluation of COVID-19 infections. Regarding the current status of the venture, Boikanyo confirmed that the department will soon start testing the mask’s efficiency at diagnosing SARS-CoV-2 (the causative agent of COVID-19) infected patients. The initial study pertaining to TB was undertaken in collaboration with the University of Leicester (UL). Collaborators at UL have completed the SARS-CoV-2 essay for analysis of the mask. The department hopes that through the mask, a myriad of respiratory pathogens can be diagnosed along with SARS-CoV-2.
PDBY also reported in the 6 April 2020 edition on the initiative that the MakerSpace centre has undertaken to use 3D printing to print masks for health workers on the frontline of the COVID-19 outbreak. This was in response to an appeal drafted by Netcare that called on all institutions and members of the public in Gauteng who possessed a 3D printer to engage in this initiative, in order to meet the growing demand for face shields. According to Isak van der Walt, the Manager of Digital Scholarship & Innovation Digital Services & Systems at UP’s Department of Library Services, the UP Makerspace is able to print 20 masks a day with its current capacity.
“Collaborators at UL have completed the SARS-CoV-2 essay for analysis of the mask“
Along with other leading universities, UP is a member of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA). All ARUA affiliated universities have taken a stand to engage extensively in research, in order to understand the effects of COVID-19 in a local context. Through this, UP has undertaken a WHO multi-centre clinical trial for Africa that aims to approximate the effects of antiviral treatments on in-hospital mortality.
A few research initiatives pertaining to COVID-19 have been articulated by the Faculty of Health Sciences. The Centre for Viral Zoonosis, together with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) has undertaken a research venture pertaining to bats as potential carriers of COVID-19. A collaboration between the UP and the Gaven Institute of Medical Research, in Sydney Australia, has looked to utilize genomic sequences to profile the risk of South Africans being afflicted with the novel coronavirus.
Professor Wanda Markotter, who currently holds the NRF-DSI South African Research Chair in Animal Infectious Diseases and is also the Director of the Centre for Viral Zoonosis, is working on this venture. The study looks to identify the different types of zoonotic viruses (with the coronavirus being one of them) present in bats and other terrestrial mammals in Africa. Using this information, the study aims to analyse the presence of these viruses in the excretions of the animals, which could then be a potential source of transmission to other animals and humans. Furthermore, the research also entails surveillance of SARS related viruses in horse shoe bat species.
“All ARUA affiliated universities have taken a stand to engage extensively in research, in order to understand the effects of COVID-19 in a local context.“
Professor Marietjie Venter, the Head of the Zoonotic, Arbo and Respiratory Virus Research Programme at the Centre for Viral Zoonosis partakes in an ongoing study that looks at fevers caused by zoonotic and emerging viruses. Prof. Venter is currently working on a review paper on COVID-19 diagnostics under the Journal for Clinical Pathology.
The Department of Family medicine has formulated a research unit pertaining to community-oriented primary care, called UP COPC (University of Pretoria Community Oriented Primary Care). The initiative is actively involved in outreach programs that conduct COVID-19 screenings in rural areas.
With regard to the importance of delivering accurate information and statistics to the public, the Faculty of Health Sciences, in conjunction with the Department of Statistics and Department of Applied Mathematics, are undertaking a myriad of modeling studies that look to present accurate COVID-19 statistics. Prof. Vukosi Marivate, who is currently the ABSA Chair of Data Science and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Data Science, has created a repository to collate data on the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in Africa. The goal is to record detailed information on each reported case in every African country using data from official sources, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and departments of health.
“UP’s health sciences faculty has made numerous contributions in the form of hand sanitiser installations, cellphone applications […] and the creation of informative COVID-19 media“
UP Medical students have also become active participants in the fight against the COVID-19 outbreak. Senior medical students who volunteered their services have been deployed in hospital settings where they are tasked with assisting doctors in numerous COVID-19 related projects that do not expose them to the frontline. Some final year medical students have been tasked with manning a UP hotline for COVID-19 related questions that members of the public have, like locations of the closest testing sites.
The local hotline was created after a collaboration between the University of Pretoria (UP) and the Sediba Hope Centre. This project was an attempt at easing the influx of calls faced by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. The service is available from Monday through Friday between 8 am-5 pm, via 080 061 1197.
UP’s health sciences faculty has made numerous contributions in the form of hand sanitiser installations, cellphone applications for use by doctors in a hospital setting to track COVID-19 cases, and the creation of informative COVID-19 media that informs UP students. The numerous contributions made by UP staff and students in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak in South Africa on the frontlines and behind the scenes has been an exemplary model to many institutions.
Illustration: Marchall Potgieter