Amid the gloom, SA scientists share innovation and data to help others

31 July 2020 - 16:00
By Tanya Farber
During a virtual summit on Friday, World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus congratulated South African scientists on the high level of innovation and data collection.
Image: AFP/PIERRE ALBOUY During a virtual summit on Friday, World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus congratulated South African scientists on the high level of innovation and data collection.

Prof Glenda Gray, chief executive of the SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC), said at around the time of SA's first Covid-19 case in March, she was about to board a domestic flight.

Midair, she did a frenetic brainstorm.

That moment has now come to symbolise the time pressures and balancing act of SA’s abundant science community, many of whom shared their wisdom at a summit on innovation hosted by higher education, science and technology minister Blade Nzimande and health minister Zweli Mkhize on Friday.

President Cyril Ramaphosa was also scheduled to address the summit, but pulled out at the last minute.

“In the aeroplane, I put together a strategy I would share as soon as I landed,” said Gray.

As head of the SAMRC and with a CV stretching from here to Timbuktu, Gray had her finger on the pulse of the issues that would be urgent.

“The first issue was that of testing,” she said, “as I knew there was already a global problem with regards to reagents. Also, I knew we had to improve our surveillance in communities.”

Prof Helen Rees, founder and director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, quoted Albert Einstein, who said: “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”

She said Covid-19 is like wartime in the sense that this is when innovations spring up at a rapid pace.

“We have learnt a lot from wars,” she said. “In Roman times we learnt about trauma surgery in the wars.”

During the Crimean War the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale, said “diet, dirt and drains” were at the centre of health crises, and this, said Rees, still stands today.

So what is the big learning thus far in the time of the Covid-19 disaster?

Rees said: “One of the main things we have learnt is that what you need under these circumstances is end-to-end solutions. It is not just that we need new technologies and need them rapidly. We also need to ask how we’re going to scale them up and ensure equitable access and fair allocation.

“You also need to ensure  delivery can happen at scale.”

One of the harshest learning curves during the pandemic is the mob out for a quick buck.

“Inadequate sanitisers, masks that were said to be respiratory but weren’t. These are just some examples,” she said.

From lay people’s products to vaccines and treatments, regulation is crucial “but has to happen at speed” during this crisis, Rees said.

Ultimately, “because of the compressed timeline, we have had to think with an end-to-end approach”.

“We have had to be flexible in terms of speeding up processing, but we cannot be flexible in terms of ethics and standards.”

Prof Salim Abdool Karim, who heads the Covid-19 advisory panel to the government, said one of the biggest components of innovation in SA during this crisis has been the phenomenal collection of data that has rolled in from different disciplines.

“Understanding the role of science in dealing with a novel disease that we didn't even know existed seven months ago, means data becomes central and crucial. Everything we try to understand about this pandemic needs to be rooted in data,” he said.

While public attention has focused on the data of health, infection, testing, recoveries and deaths, scientists from other disciplines in the country have also been fundamental in our understanding of the crisis and how to manage it.

Also speaking at the virtual summit on innovation, Prof Sarah Mosoeta, chief executive of the National Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences, said her institute had been conducting in-depth research in five townships including Alexandra, Diepsloot, Khayelitsha, Soweto and Umlazi.

“Townships are very particular localities that need to be understood in context,” she said.

“The virus itself has led to other crises around food insecurity, unemployment, income loss and political issues. When we consider the effects of the disease, we also need to think socioculturally.”

She said as the coronavirus spreads in communities, it cannot be forgotten that those communities are “embedded in histories”.

Questions about “who is affected and how” underpin questions of place, gender and class.

An example is “the burden of care” which, during the Covid-19 crisis in South Africa, is predominantly landing on the shoulders of “older women, placing them at higher risk than others of contracting the virus”. 

Mosoeta said, “Townships were not constructed to deal with any crisis at all. They were simply established as labour reserves. We must remember that sociocultural dynamics are just as important as vaccine development. Vaccines won’t work if we don’t grapple with the real context.”

She said we cannot put all our resources into bio sciences without bringing social sciences into the picture.

“What we have found is that the majority of individuals in South Africa are making daily choices between health risks versus livelihoods,” she said.

Prof Priscilla Reddy of the Human Sciences Research Council also emphasised the role of data from social sciences.

“Covid 19 has eroded societies all over the world,” she said, “and breakthroughs will emerge from the social sciences. In the absence of therapeutics or a vaccine, the only useful interventions right now are within the arena of the ‘host and the environment’ — in other words, human beings and where they work, travel, play.”


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