WHO’s Director General visits SU’s lab

From the left, Belgian Minister of Development Cooperation, Ms Meryame Kitir; Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO); and Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University, Professor Wim de Villiers. PICTURE: NARDUS ENGELBRECHT

Stellenbosch University’s (SU) Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS) hosted a high-level international delegation, led by Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), at its Tygerberg campus on Friday February 11.

This visit to the FMHS’ Biomedical Research Institute (BMRI) formed part of a two-day tour to inspect the facilities that will make up Africa’s first Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing hub.

The high-level delegation included the South African Minister of Health, Dr Joe Phaahla, the South African Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Mr Buti Manamela, the Belgian Minister of Development Cooperation, Ms Meryame Kitir, members of the WHO and other national and international stakeholders.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the ‘vaccine gap’ between the developing and developed worlds, posing a serious health threat to the people of Africa. As a leading health sciences faculty on the continent, we are committed to finding solutions to health challenges facing the people of South Africa and the African continent.

“We are excited to be part of the first Covid mRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub that will help build vaccine development and manufacturing capacity in Africa and establish Africa’s vaccine independence,” says Professor Elmi Muller, Dean of the FMHS.

SU’s Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI) is a partner-member of the South African mRNA Vaccine Consortium (SAMVAC), selected by the WHO to become the first Covid mRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub.

The purpose of the hub is to develop vaccine research and manufacturing capacity on the African continent. CERI’s role in this consortium is the genomic surveillance and identification of variants in Africa.

CERI (a new centre that will officially be launched later this year) is envisioned to be the largest genomics facility in Africa and is headed by Professor Tulio de Oliveira, world-renowned bioinformatician and professor of bioinformatics at SU.

“We are very excited to be selected to be part of the first WHO mRNA hub in the world that builds on our expertise in genomics and passion for capacity development. The mRNA hub is not only about manufacturing vaccines, but will build capacity on the continent,” says Professor De Oliveira.

The BMRI, where CERI is located, is a large infrastructural investment of more than a billion rand by SU and the South African Department of Science and Innovation. It is on par with the most advanced biomedical research facilities in the world and will host many world-class research groups in South Africa.

“The BMRI has world-class infrastructure and houses leading South African biomedical researchers who are at the forefront of efforts to develop African solutions for challenging African health problems.

“The infrastructure investment will allow significant human capacity development through training of some of the best students from the continent and exposing them to extensive national and international research networks to result in a next generation of successful scientists,” says Professor Gerhard Walzl, Executive Head of the FMHS’ Department of Biomedical Sciences.

Professor De Oliveira’s research is aimed at responding effectively to epidemics through pathogen genomics surveillance. This work enables enhanced biomedical discovery, improved treatment and diagnosis, better vaccine development to prevent human disease, and has the potential to lead global research in this field and generate significant economic opportunities for Africa.

SU Rector and Vice-Chancellor Professor Wim de Villiers commented on the significance of the visit: “Stellenbosch University is proud to be part of this initiative and we applaud the contributions of all role players. As a leading research-intensive institution, we strive to advance knowledge in service of society.

“In everything we do, we try to be locally relevant, regionally impactful and globally competitive. The cutting-edge research and purposeful partnerships involved in this initiative will help make South Africa, Africa and the world a better place. By improving healthcare everywhere, this initiative will help counter the inequity exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.”