SA universities make breakthrough with possible new Covid-19 vaccine

A collaboration between Walter Sisulu University (WSU) and North-West University (NWU) has led to “very promising first results” from pre-clinical trials on a new Covid-19 vaccine candidate.

Despite their success, in the competitive Covid-19 vaccine development race funding is not easy to come by, says one the projects’ key researchers, Professor Petra Bester.

“Its extremely difficult to say and the reason for that is being one of the smaller universities in South Africa [in terms of resources] it’s been quite a hectic challenge to access the whole value chain.

“The project is in the final phase of a pre-clinical animal trial and we will soon be able to release its evidence and findings. In terms of how long it’s going to take to convert this into a vaccine for humans, Bester is unable to say.

How does it work?

Without giving too much away about the technology behind the vaccine since their results have yet to be published, all Bester divulged is that the vaccine uses a DNA related mechanism and is a relatively affordable and easy vaccine to produce.

The DNA vaccine candidate was developed by Germany-based, Professor Markus Depfenhart, who holds extraordinary appointments as professor at both universities. The trials, which are being conducted at the Pre-Clinical Drug Development Platform at the NWU, are well advanced and promising.

The trial and the analyses will continue over the following weeks, but the road to a finished product is likely to be a long one.

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“What we have learned over the last few months in South Africa is that the vaccine world is highly competitive. To become a player in the vaccine environment is extremely difficult,” says Bester.

“We have our major universities playing in that field and we immediately learned that as much as we have Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer and AstraZeneca coming out, we will be quiet for a while, make sure there is excellent science and get our ethics in place and do a proper animal trial.”

More doors will be opened

The university’s collaboration with Walter Sisulu University opened up a relationship between the project leaders and the Walter Sisulu Foundation.

Together the group has now established an NPO called the Sisulu Foundation for African and Pandemic Disease Response. This is in collaboration with partners in Kenya, Botswana, Germany and Slovenia.

“Although the vaccine is big news, the vision is that it’s time to bring vaccine development back into pan-Africa,” concludes Bester.

Professor Rushiella Songca, vice-chancellor and principal of WSU says the vaccine candidate is a door opener for research on the continent.

“We look forward to a strong future collaboration resulting from this initiative and strengthening bonds in the Pan-African research and innovation community. We can no longer afford to work in isolation from one another on the continent – we need links and partnerships to grow and succeed.”

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Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi SC expressed his support for the initiative and said the impact of Covid-19 has been devastating to the world especially Africa.

“It is hoped that the promising results of this trial will not be limited to WSU and NWU but will carry significance for other African universities and the developing world as a whole. As we move towards the next phase of this project, we hope to enter into meaningful partnerships with other institutions which share our vision and aspirations for the advancement of humanity.”

Western Cape scientists working on variant-proof vaccine

In another vaccine success, clinical trials of an experimental Covid-19 vaccine produced by US company ImmunityBio progressed to phase one trials in March this year.

According to Professor Graeme Meintjies the trial is being conducted at the a clinic in Khayelitsha belonging to the Wellcome Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Africa. Vaccines are usually approved after phase three trial  results have been published.

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