Even though CoVID-19 has upended life as we knew it before 2020, the pandemic yielded significant benefits to science and humanity; it also brought to the surface, loose ends that need to be tightened, if humanity is to continue building on the legacy created by the pandemic, to date.
These sentiments were expressed at Universities South Africa’s 6th Biennial Research and Innovation (R&I) Dialogue of the Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG) that was held virtually last Friday. The views were shared by both the Chairperson of USAf’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group, Professor Thoko Mayekiso, who is also Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Mpumalanga, and Professor Salim S. Abdool Karim, a well-known South African epidemiologist widely recognised for scientific contributions to HIV prevention and treatment, and more recently, for his advisory work in the context of CoVID-19.
Delivering a keynote address at last week’s one-day R&I Dialogue, Professor Salim Abdool Karim, Director at the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA), was leading the discussion on one of two themes of the conference: The Impact of CoVID-19 on Research and Post-Graduate Studies. He first updated the conference on the CoVID-19 trajectory before discussing how the pandemic had impacted research and innovation.
CoVID-19 research sets new speed records
Among numerous benefits derived from the pandemic, Professor Abdool Karim cited unprecedented speed records in scientific research. In comparison to HIV/AIDS, which was discovered in 1981 but took scientists two full years before they could identify the virus, CoVID-19 was identified within 11 days of its discovery in 2019. Whereas it took seven years to develop the first rapid test for HIV, the one for CoVID-19 was achieved within four months of discovering the virus. He also mentioned that 40 years after HIV was identified, scientists were still hard at work now – researching towards a vaccine – yet a vaccine against CoVID-19 was realised within 11 months of the virus discovery.
In this regard, CoVID-19 research had outperformed numerous scientific investigations which yielded vaccines against measles (10 years), hepatitis (14 years) and typhoid (105 years).
“This shows how rapidly we can now get things done,” said Professor Abdool Karim.
Secondly, not only had Covid-19 yielded an unparalleled number of scholarly publications; most major publications were circulating the latest research papers free of subscription. The world had also evidenced unparalleled acceleration of peer-review and publication schedules across the board.
This free flow of information had given rise to increased levels of transparency and accessibility to Science. New data was being made not only accessible but also at levels of immediacy never seen before. Epidemiological discussions had become a common feature in the media, and, as a result, citizens were better informed about the nature of the virus and how to prevent and contain its transmission.
Governments were also pumping more funds into CoVID-related research. Although it was not clear how much the South African government had dedicated to research on the pandemic, Professor Abdool Karim said some governments had allocated record-high budgets to CoVID-19 research and innovation over the past year. To date, global expenditure committed to this pandemic until 2025 was projected at $157 billion (approximately R2,165 trillion).
New relations built between health policy-making and Science
In South Africa, epidemiologists formed such an integral part of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on CoVID-19 that, of the 119 advisories offered government from Science research in the past 15 months, government had fully implemented 96 (81%) and partially implemented 19. “As an advisory body we’re producing new evidence that influences decisions, which shows how close decision-making is becoming to Science.”
These advances had, however, not yet brought the world to a state of utopia.
Pandemic-induced strategic changes to research and innovation
All countries of the world needed to strengthen their pandemic preparedness and response capacities, Professor Abdool Karim said, much in agreement with what Professor Mayekiso had said during the opening session: “The fact that we have had to import vaccines, on its own, is a reflection of our lack of preparedness to handle such epidemics.” Such a capacity required high-level teams of epidemiologists, virologists, mathematical modellers, infectious disease specialists, behavioural scientists and academic researchers. He added that this was where universities came in, as producers of human capital. “We need to build capacity to produce high-level teams of scientists and link into Africa’s Centres for Disease Control and the World Health Organisation.”
Pandemic preparedness would also need to integrate health surveillance systems that currently separated inter-related data on laboratory services, hospital admissions, statutory notification and death. South Africa, like other countries of the world, needed to boost its biotechnological capability for diagnosis, prevention and treatment. It would take investing heavily in medical schools and biotechnological parks to build this capacity. It would also take rigorous scientific innovation, developing manufacturing capacity and forging international partnerships to realise the requisite and sustainable preparedness and response rates.
All response strategies of 2020/21 credited to Science
Ultimately, the CoVID-19 strategies and regulations employed by South Africa in response to the pandemic in 2020/21 were informed by locally-generated solid scientific evidence. Even though the country had not produced new vaccine technologies, it was able to use its own research infrastructure to test vaccines developed elsewhere, thus still making a significant contribution to global health.
Creating a new cadre of science leaders
In conclusion, Professor Abdool Karim said South Africa had, in the past year, contributed its fair share of CoVID-19 response to humanity.
The country now needed to build on that legacy and its proud history of past and present leaders to create a new generation of science leaders to lead this country to world-class science and medicinal research and innovation that would catapult this country to a brighter future.
Professor Abdool Karim was one of six main speakers who led deliberations on The Impact of CoVID-19 on Research and Post-Graduate Studies.
According to Professor Mayekiso, the Chairperson of RISG, the RISG R&I Dialogue, now solidly entrenched in USAf’s calendar, typically gathers senior academics, researchers and policy makers to deliberate on matters that have an impact on the research and innovation agenda nationally and internationally.
‘Mateboho Green is the Manager: Corporate Communications at Universities South Africa.