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Africa’s First COVID-19 Vaccine Trials Have Begun In South Africa

A COVID-19 vaccine trial program began in South Africa last week — the first for the African continent — as the nation’s coronavirus case count topped 138,000. The vaccine candidate, called ChAdOx1 nCOV-19, was developed by the United Kingdom’s Oxford Jenner Institute. In South Africa, the University of Witwatersrand (Wits), the University of Oxford, and the Oxford Jenner Institute are collaborating to conduct a study involving 2,000 people, 50 of whom have HIV. The participants will be tracked for a year to see how well the candidate protects against the virus.

Shabir Madhi, a Wits vaccinology professor, told a virtual news conference, “We began screening participants for the South African Oxford 1 COVID-19 vaccine trial,” a week before vaccinations were set to begin. The pilot program is supported by the Department of Health and the South Africa Medical Research Council, and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Professor Shabir Madhi of Wits University. (Photo: Wits University YouTube channel screen grab)

Vaccination pilot programs have emerged around the globe as the world battles the novel coronavirus, which has claimed more than 500,000 lives. In the U.K., 4,000 people have signed up for a vaccine trial program, and Brazil, where the total case count has topped 1.35 million, plans to initiate its own pilot program. United States officials are preparing for a massive vaccine trial program involving as many as 30,000 people.

South Africa has more coronavirus cases than any other country on the African continent. On June 27, more than 7,200 cases were recorded in a single 24-hour period, and the total death count is approaching 2,500. There are about 27,000 beds available for COVID-19 patients across the country in total. The spike in COVID-19 cases came after months of speculation about why the African continent had a low number of cases as the spread of the virus gained footing across other continents.

On March 27, South Africa implemented a nationwide lockdown to curb the rapidly accelerating spread of the virus. However, the country has begun to reopen in the last several weeks in an effort to protect the country’s economy.

As South Africa enters its winter season, the outbreak is expected to worsen. “As we enter winter in South Africa and pressure increases on public hospitals, now more than ever we need a vaccine to prevent infection by COVID-19,” Madhi said, describing the vaccine trial as a “landmark moment.”

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize also warned of the difficult season ahead, saying on June 28 the epidemic would hit its peak “during the cold winter months.”

In April, two French doctors were accused of racism after suggesting on a television show that coronavirus vaccines should be tested on Africans first.

“Should we not do this study in Africa where there are no masks, no treatment or intensive care, a little bit like it’s been done for certain AIDS studies, where among prostitutes, we try things because we know that they are highly exposed and don’t protect themselves?” questioned Dr. Jean-Paul Mira.

“You are right,” agreed the research director of France’s national health institute.

Madhi hopes the introduction of the vaccine will shorten the amount of time it takes for South Africa’s population to reach herd immunity, which will reduce overall vulnerability to the virus and curb the epidemic. “Once 60 to 70% of the population have developed some sort of immunity against the virus, then when one person becomes infected, that person is very unlikely to infect more than one other person, in fact won’t infect more than one person,” he said.

If the trial is successful, the vaccine may be widely available by October 2021.

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