The first human trial of a potential Covid-19 vaccine in Africa has begun in South Africa with scientists expressing confidence the move will better position the continent to contain the spread of the pandemic. 

Scientists at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg say the vaccine is being administered on about 2000 volunteers across South Africa to test how they will respond to it over the next 12 months. 

“The reason we are doing this is that, we want the people in Africa to access this drug just like the people in the northern hemisphere. We just don’t want the northern hemisphere to have the drug, have it for its people and then we are actually left on our own.

“If we participate in the development of this vaccine, we would be seen as partners. When it becomes available, partners would also benefit including participants in the study. So, the benefits are huge,” Prof. Johnny Mahlangu who is one of the scientists leading the trials told Kojo Yankson on the Super Morning Show.  

“There will be lots and lots of knowledge generated as a result of this study. Knowledge that will not be the same knowledge as is generated at Oxford University or in the UK. And we want to be able to say that that knowledge came from Africa, it came from South Africa, it came from Wits University,” Mahlangu who is a clinical haematologist and head of the School of Pathology at the University of Witwatersrand said proudly in a telephone interview.

How remarkable is this feet by South Africa? 

There currently exists no approved cure nor vaccines for theCovid-19 disease. About 149 vaccines are currently under development all over the world by research institutions, universities, government agencies and pharmaceutical companies according to the World Health Organization.

Seventeen of the potential vaccines including that developed by the Oxford University researchers have reached the stage where they are being tested on human beings. None of these vaccines is being developed in Africa, a situation attributed mainly to lack of investment in health infrastructure and research generally over the years. 

Dr. Michael Owusu, a clinical microbiologist and lecturer at the Department of Medical Diagnostics at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana says Africans participating in the human vaccine trials is the only way to be certain Covid-19 vaccines will work in Africa. 

“A lot of the Covid-19 vaccines are being tried in Asia, North America and Europe. If we wait for them to finish their trials and bring it here, it is possible it will not work for us. Because what we call the ‘host genomic makeup’ of Africans is different from Europeans and Asians,” he said.  

“And so, when you are trying a drug like a vaccine, it’s good to use different populations to understand how different groups will respond to the vaccine. So that if it works well, then we know it’s going to work for the continent and so we can use it to protect people. If you exclude Africa from the trials and the vaccine works, how sure are you that if it comes to Africa, it’s going to work?” Dr. Owusu quizzed. 

He commended South Africa for the giant step saying; “this is the way to go. And I think South Africa has been bold to go in for this.” 

Prof. Mahlangu says South Africans are excited about the trials. “I think this trial has been received very well in South Africa…In the last 20 years, I have conducted over 80 clinical trials. I have been particularly surprised at the level at which people will want to come and be part of the solution, as opposed to being part of the problem,” he said.

Junior Mhlongo, one of the first batch of 15 early participants in the Covid-19 vaccine trial in South Africa told DW-TV in an interview after taking the vaccine shot; “I feel a little bit scared. But I want to know what’s going on with this vaccine so I can tell my friends and others what’s going on in these times.” 

The vaccine with technical name ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, was developed by researchers at the University of Oxford in the UK. When administered to people, the vaccine has the potential to protect them against the virus that causes Covid-19. The vaccine has already been tested on about 4000 people in the UK as part of the ongoing trial which is simultaneously taking place in Brazil and will soon begin in USA. 

The South African Health Products Regulatory Authority and the Human Research Ethics Committee of the University of the Witwatersrand undertook a vigorous vetting exercise to ensure the planned process was safe before greenlight was given. Mahlangu assures the vaccines are safe. 

“The level of risk has already been evaluated as I said in over 4000 individuals in the UK. The risk is very, very minimal. It’s a flu virus that has been inactivated and is known not to cause any infection. We know now from the trials in UK that it is safe. The other component is the genetic material that has been derived from Covid-19. That has also been inactivated. So, it is unable to cause Covid-19. So, we are dealing with a relatively safe vaccine on the basis of the data that is available at the moment,” Prof. Mahlangu said. 

What difference will a vaccine make in helping contain the pandemic in Africa? 

As at the end of June 2020, data from the World Health Organization indicates about 10 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 had been recorded all over the world with more than 500,000 deaths. As at 29th June 2020, data from the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that the continent has recorded over 383,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 with over 9,600 deaths. The virus was first discovered in Asia. Then the epicenter of infection moved to Europe, then to Southern America, Northern America, and there have been warnings cases in Africa could spike as the pandemic continues to spread. Dr. Owusu believes vaccines remain the surest way to protect the African population effectively from the pandemic.

“The only way for us now to prevent infection and possible deaths is to get the vaccine. This is a new virus. Nobody is immune to the virus. Everybody is susceptible. So, if it enters into a country, it will run through the country through a certain cause until majority of people become infected. If you are not careful many people will die,” Dr. Owusu cautioned. 

“So, for me, I think vaccine is the sure way to go… Vaccines are good. Once we are going to live with Covid-19 for a long time, the only thing that will help us get back to normal is to get a vaccine. Once we get a vaccine, many people can become immune and may not be infected and even if they are infected, they will have a level of immunity to prevent to prevent subsequent infection,” he added. 

African Union Ministers of Health and Heads of Delegation at the end of a two day virtual meeting last week threw their support behind ongoing Covid-19 clinical trials on the continent. A statement following days of deliberation called for the development of a “continent-wide clinical trial network to better connect organisations that are supporting efforts to test potential vaccine candidates.”

The meeting announced a vaccine strategy for the Coronavirus disease in Africa which includes securing sufficient vaccine supply, removing barriers to vaccine roll-out and the strengthening of capacity to adopt and scale-up Covid-19 vaccine distribution, once clinical approval of a viable vaccine candidate is achieved.

The union also called for an equitable and timely allocation and distribution of vaccine supply within the African continent, both across and within countries, taking into account equity in gender and socioeconomic status. The union observed that identifying and scaling-up an effective Covid-19 vaccine is critical to slow the spread of the disease. The African union called for an effective regulatory control structure for Covid-19 vaccine, including implementing indemnification for vaccine manufacturers, fast-tracked regulatory approvals at country level, and a robust infrastructure for ongoing monitoring of vaccine efficacy and safety.