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Find out more about the master of science in medicine in the field of vaccinology from the Wits University faculty of health sciences. Picture: SUPPLIED/WITS UNIVERSITY
Find out more about the master of science in medicine in the field of vaccinology from the Wits University faculty of health sciences. Picture: SUPPLIED/WITS UNIVERSITY

Forging new frontiers in health care

Wits University is home to some of the best scholars in the world, who lead globally respected research entities. The university and SA scientists are well positioned to chart a course to catapult us into new worlds of discovery and innovation, knowledge creation and generation, teaching and learning.  

Prof Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits University vice-chancellor and principal, speaks of moonshot moments” that could originate from the Global South. “We are using new technologies to leapfrog through aeons of time, and harnessing our local and global connections to conduct research that remains ahead of the innovation curve,” he says.

Vaccinology is a prominent area of scientific research & development (R&D) for Wits scientists, led by Prof Shabir Madhi, Prof Lyn Morris, Dr Thandeka Moyo and Prof Patrick Arbuthnot, among others. In addition to various studies to treat and prevent Covid-19, Wits championed the first two Covid-19 vaccine trials in Africa, while the HIV/Aids vaccine development work from Wits is enduring and notable. 

Society can, and often does, turn to universities and experts in challenging moments. From the Wits vaccines and infectious diseases analytics (Vida) research unit to the antiviral gene therapy research unit via Wits Enterprise, Wits academics are focused on advancing health solutions for the greater good. 

Peer-reviewed scientific research proves vaccinating children in SA prevents at least 2.5m deaths, but about 1.5m deaths could be prevented annually if vaccines were more accessible and widely used. Headed by Madhi, a global leader in the field of vaccines to prevent paediatric infectious diseases, Wits Vida successfully developed vaccines for infants and pregnant women before having to shift its focus to Covid-19 vaccinology. 

Critical conversation and consideration on vaccinology took place in a webinar in which Madhi and Wits alumnus Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong interrogated what’s required for the next generation of Covid-19 vaccines. 

Soon-Shiong is a South African-American transplant surgeon, bioscientist and the inventor of the drug Abraxane, known for its efficacy against lung, breast and pancreatic cancer. Speaking to Madhi, he said he was proud to see “Wits and SA leading the science to combat Covid-19”, adding that the country has “the best chance to lead the world in infectious diseases and orchestrate protection of the entire immune system”. 

Galvanising innovation in health sciences 

A move to bolster SA’s vaccine manufacturing capacity is seen in a joint venture between Wits and biopharmaceutical company Biovac. The Wits/SA Medical Research Council antiviral gene therapy research unit (AGTRU), through Wits Enterprise, partnered with Biovac to develop the skills needed to develop viral vectored vaccines. 

Viral vector-based vaccines differ from most conventional vaccines in that they use the body’s cells to produce antigens. The modified virus can carry the genetic code for the antigen into many different types of cells, including those of humans, which are then instructed to make large amounts of antigen. This triggers an intended immune response to fight the pathogen. 

The AGTRU specialises in the engineering, propagation and assay of adenoviruses, which, as carriers (vectors) of genes encoding immunogenic proteins, are gaining favour in the production of viral vectored vaccines, including vaccines against Covid-19.

The Wits/Biovac partnership shows SA has the capability and the skills to tackle global public health challenges. 

The collaboration is expected to improve the capacity and preparation of drug substances for vaccines that target viruses such as Sars-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19. If successful, it will be a good example of how leveraging SA partnerships to tap into specialist resources enables regional preparedness for future disease outbreaks.

From pioneering novel medical solutions that target the entire immune system, to enabling the holistic health tech R&D value chain, universities are partners that can work with the private and public sectors, and for the good of effective and accessible health care that originates in the Global South.  

For more information visit the faculty of health sciences at Wits University website.

Find out more about the master of science in medicine in the field of vaccinology from the Wits University faculty of health sciences. 

This article was paid for by Wits University.

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