'I trust the science': Wits professors on the line in Covid-19 vaccine trial

Prof Martin Veller is vaccinated in Soweto in SA’s first Covid-19 vaccine trial. Veller says Africa needs to be involved in vaccine development so there is then a moral obligation for the continent to get the vaccine once it's available.
Prof Martin Veller is vaccinated in Soweto in SA’s first Covid-19 vaccine trial. Veller says Africa needs to be involved in vaccine development so there is then a moral obligation for the continent to get the vaccine once it's available.
Image: Supplied

Senior clinicians in the faculty of health sciences at Wits University have volunteered to participate in SA’s first Covid-19 vaccine trial.

The volunteers were screened on Friday, and those found eligible to participate were vaccinated on Tuesday at the Soweto trial site.

Dr June Fabian, nephrologist and research director at the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre, explained her motivation for volunteering for the trial: “For me it’s about supporting local scientists to do world-class science. I think it’s amazing that South Africa is a Covid-19 vaccine trial site and to be a part of that is very exciting. We must support each other as a Wits community and we must support our colleagues.”

Leading HIV clinician Prof Francois Venter, divisional director of Ezintsha at Wits University, said of his participation in the trial: “This collection of Wits faculty, between them, have first-authored some of the highest-impact medical articles on pandemics. It’s important to demonstrate how urgent and safe these [Covid-19 vaccine] studies are, and I have enough confidence in the science to put myself on the line.”

Dean of the faculty of health sciences at Wits and professor of surgery, Martin Veller, said of his enrolment: “The coronavirus pandemic has caused massive disruption in the world to public health and economies. As a consequence, a vaccine is probably the only way to manage in the medium term. We need to get a trial done quickly. Anyone who can enrol, and especially we in the health care fraternity who understand the risks, should.”

Veller added that he feels strongly that Africa needs to be involved in vaccine development so there is a moral obligation for the continent to get the vaccine once it becomes available.

According to Wits professor of vaccinology, Shabir Madhi, who leads the South African Covid-19 vaccine trial, the legacy of vaccines shows that they do not necessarily work similarly across different populations.

“We really need to generate data applicable to the local context. A number of past vaccines have been shown to be highly effective in high-income settings, but when evaluated in low- and middle-income settings [like South Africa], the vaccines were found to be much less effective and, at times, not effective at all,” Madhi said.

He said if the country was to make informed decisions at an early stage about whether these vaccines are going to benefit people in South Africa, “it’s critical that we undertake the clinical evaluation during the start of the entire programme, rather than at the latter stage.”

“Waiting for results to come in from other studies would just lead to a lag in terms of the timing when vaccines would be introduced in South Africa as well as other low- and middle-income countries.”

Some in the health-care fraternity are represented by the Progressive Health Forum (PHF), a national advocacy network of health professionals, activists and experts. Dr Aslam KA Dasoo, convener of the PHF and a trial volunteer, says that this vaccine trial is part of a multi-centre global effort to meet the greatest threat to humanity in living memory.

“Knowing that a vaccine is the best possible means of mitigating the global impact of the pandemic makes it a great privilege for me to participate in this study. For those who have expressed anxiety at the trial being conducted here, my enrolment, together with other doctors and medical scientists, should provide comfort that the trial is safe.

“More importantly, it is a signal that South Africa is not only at the forefront of this scientific effort, but also makes it more likely that the people of our continent will benefit from a future vaccine,” said Dasoo.


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