SA's Covid-19 adviser Prof Salim Abdool Karim steps down

25 March 2021 - 11:36 By yasantha naidoo
Prof Salim Abdool Karim, former head of the ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19, handed in his resignation to national health minister Zweli Mkhize last month. File photo.
Prof Salim Abdool Karim, former head of the ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19, handed in his resignation to national health minister Zweli Mkhize last month. File photo.
Image: Jackie Clausen

The country's head of the ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19, Salim Abdool Karim, has stepped down from his position saying he needs to devote his attention to science and research.

Abdool Karim made the announcement during an interview on SAfm on Thursday morning, when he corrected presenter Stephen Grootes who referred to him as the ministerial advisory committee (MAC) chair.

Abdool Karim, who is an internationally respected scientist who heads the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in SA at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and holds positions at the universities of Columbia, Cornell and Harvard, said he was appointed as chair on March 23 2020 and that his term ended at midnight on Wednesday.

The epidemiologist advised national minister of health Zweli Mkhize in a letter dated February 24, that his term of office would come to an end in March.

In the letter he said: “It has been my singular honour and privilege to serve as the chair initially and subsequently as the co-chair of the ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19 during an unprecedented time in our country’s history.

“When I accepted the appointment on March 23 2020, little did I realise how important science would be in helping our country navigate the complexities of the coronavirus pandemic. It has been most rewarding to work alongside many of our country’s leading scientists from a range of disciplines — SA is indeed very fortunate to have so many accomplished scientists in the MAC.”

Abdool Karim said as his one-year anniversary approached he felt it was time to return to his HIV research and academic commitments.

“I am therefore stepping down from the MAC on Covid-19 (and consequently from the MAC Vaccines as well), having served for a year, with my last day being March 23 2021.”

Abdool Karim paid tribute to the calibre, “skills, dedication and commitment” of the MAC members

“I wish to pay tribute to my colleagues who served and who continue to serve on the MAC — it is a labour of love, grappling with an avalanche of new information daily — sifting through fact, fiction, conspiracy theories, assumptions and projections to provide science-based advice in the midst of substantial uncertainty.”

He said from next month he would refocus his attention on HIV, and in particular on preventing it in young women in Africa.

“The novel antibody technologies we have developed could make an important contribution to bringing the global effort of HIV prevention back on track. I will of course remain available to assist the MAC on Covid-19 as and when required and I will ensure that I complete my current Covid-19 obligations to the African Task Force for coronavirus, The Lancet Commission on Covid-19 and others.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has posed many challenges and hardships but it has also provided an opportunity to develop the country’s capacity to deal with pandemics — I am humbled to have had the opportunity to make some small contribution to this process.”

'A trusted figure for so many South Africans'

In a statement issued on Thursday, Mkhize confirmed Abdool Karim’s resignation and announced that he would be succeeded by eminent scientist and academic Prof Koleka Mlisana as co-chair of the committee.

He said at a MAC meeting on March 19, ahead of the first-year anniversary since its inception, Abdool Karim had “expressed his desire to return to the important work he was doing, particularly in HIV research and innovation, before his appointment as chair of the MAC”.

Mkhize said Abdool Karim has presided over a committee that has positioned SA as one of the “leading nations” in the emergency response to the pandemic.

“He has become a trusted figure for so many South Africans, who have grown accustomed to his singular ability of explaining complex scientific concepts in simple terms that all of us can understand.

“Throughout, he has remained focused, level-headed, calm and compassionate. Even under enormous pressure, Prof Abdool Karim always received everyone with his warm smile and reassuring presence.”

The minister said the country wouldn’t lose Abdool Karim’s acumen and skills as he would continue to pursue his scientific research and innovation to address public health threats that plague SA and the globe.

He said the MAC co-chair Prof Marian Jacobs will continue to hold the fort for a few more months until she is joined by Mlisana who is an incumbent of the MAC on Covid-19 as chair of the pathology/laboratory subcommittee.

Mlisana also serves as a member of the MAC on antimicrobial resistance. In addition, she has held the position of executive manager of academic affairs, research and quality assurance at the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) since July 2018.

Mkhize said Jacobs indicated that a recomposition of the MAC was necessary to respond to the current evolutions in virology and epidemiology related to the virus.

“The recomposition will see strengthening of the MAC in the fields of virology, bioinformatics and phylogenetics, mathematical modelling, pharmacy and social behavioural change. The names of the full MAC will be announced once the appointment processes have been concluded.”

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