Catalysing health R&D, innovation and access

South African Health Technologies Advocacy Coalition

South Africa must heed the lessons learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic


The long queues forming at Covid-19 vaccination sites are bittersweet as we look forward to rebuilding while remembering those we lost before they could get vaccinated.

When infections and deaths skyrocketed the initial focus in fighting the disease was on developing capacity and expertise in Covid-19 vaccine development and manufacturing.

Earlier in 2021, initiatives to produce the vaccine were accompanied by a boost in health research and development (R&D) in South Africa. The World Health Organization announced its support for the first Covid-19 mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub in South Africa in June. This brings a glimmer of hope and great expectations.

At the current stage of South Africa’s vaccine roll-out, it is hoped that some cash and knowledge cascades to other health R&D initiatives. The infrastructure, along with skills acquired and transferred during this time, can be repurposed and redirected. As South Africa works to bring Covid-19 under control, more attention can be given to research on current and future diseases.

Covid-19 has exposed fault lines in our economically divided country. The stress of an ailing health system, widening inequality and spiking unemployment rates have led to heightened social issues and devastation for many South Africans.

HIV/Aids continues to burden South Africa and is amplified by tuberculosis, says UNAids. This highlights the importance of developing vaccines for other critical diseases.

The Covid-19 outbreak has taught us lessons, calling for us to build on them. The hastened vaccine development is a success we should leverage and use as a stepping stone for health R&D. Modelling this development could enable faster and easier production of vaccines in Africa, which still lags behind in vaccine roll-out.

Delays in the availability of vaccines, lack of medical supplies and vaccine inequality have proven costly as many citizens remain unvaccinated and succumb to Covid-related complications. Collaboration and innovation will create sustainable opportunities to prioritise, develop and strengthen health R&D in South Africa.

This commitment has the potential to transform and strengthen Africa’s public health system capabilities. Through collaborative efforts and the distributive progress of the vaccination roll-out, we are making moves to create growth in health R&D.

This is an opportunity for scientists and researchers to take up the space in the building and strengthen existing initiatives for Covid-19. New developments in this regard have the potential to also support the fight against TB and HIV and any other future pandemics.

South Africa has excellent experience in clinical trials, and a strong health R&D environment and infrastructure to conduct them. By better supporting an environment for scientists and researchers, South Africa will invest in the advancement of health R&D, potentially reducing dependence on the West.

There is currently a focus on investing in strengthening the country’s ability to develop and manufacture the Covid-19 vaccine. The local production of vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics has a compounding effect.

The African Development Bank says that in support of bringing vaccine manufacturing “home” it will help finance at least two technology platforms worth $400-million for vaccine production, which will be capable of producing at least 300 million doses a year.

Possible advantages include an increase in employment, upliftment of the local economy and faster local response to health threats. It is crucial to develop homegrown solutions, innovations and health products that are affordable and accessible to those who need them the most.

In the past year we have seen many interventions, collaborations and changes in health infrastructure to fight Covid-19. In some institutions there has been repurposing of HIV and TB labs for Covid-19 testing and a number of clinical studies are taking place. This shows an ability to prioritise health and R&D.

With Covid-19 mRNA vaccine technology transfer, advanced infrastructure and skilled scientists and researchers, overcoming Covid-19 is a step towards repurposing the knowledge and successes to champion other health R&D needs. The establishment of the first Covid-19 mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub in South Africa is a positive step.

There is a need for correct placement of long-term funding once Covid-19 has been subdued – looking beyond vaccine manufacturing to achieve sustainable health R&D. Research has found that an overfocus on short-term allocative efficiency and a lack of capacity to deal with uncertain future challenges, costs lives.

Health R&D is at the core of saving lives, ensuring a productive workforce, increasing declining life expectancy and building strong economies. Heeding the crucial lessons offered by local Covid-19 response interventions, we could have a strengthened health system geared to effectively respond to crises.

The opinionista was first published in the DailyMaverick.

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