South Africa Vaccine Studies Might Never Have Occurred

South Africa is currently ground zero for the B.1.351 variant of SARS-CoV-2, a mutation that made a mockery of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine as well as the global trend toward falling coronavirus hospitalisations. Unlike the rest of the southern hemisphere, South Africa has seen the pandemic continue to spiral out of control over summer. The country’s total number of confirmed coronavirus infections has roughly doubled since 1 December 2020, including over 20,000 new cases per day from 6 – 9 January.

All this means that South Africa is literally the frontline in the global effort against the coronavirus pandemic. From South Africa, the virulent B.1.351 variant has already spread to more than 30 countries, including 16 quarantined cases in Australia. It is quite likely to become the globally dominant strain.

So it’s incredible that the vaccine studies carried out in South Africa may, in fact, have never got off the ground. That’s according to a Conversation Africa podcast featuring Professor Shabir Madhi, director of the vaccines and infectious diseases analytics research unit at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

Madhi has already headed up data collection on a number of vaccine studies in South Africa, including on the Novavax and AstraZeneca vaccines. According to Madhi, these companies were not initially interested in carrying out research in Africa. “It took a lot of convincing,” said Madhi. “And the studies were largely led directly by us in South Africa.”

Johannesburg-based Professor Shabir Madhi

Even then, the pharmaceutical majors were reluctant to put up the funding. The Novavax South Africa study had to be part-funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Novavax. The AstraZeneca South Africa study was not funded by AstraZeneca at all, but by the Gates Foundation and the South African Medical Research Council.

According to Madhi, “There seems to be little incentive for them to do their studies here, as it’s not seen as a market that will provide a return on their investments.” Clearly, this is extremely problematic for Africans, in not having data reflective of their people and conditions, simply because of their lower average purchasing power.

But the compelling global significance of the South African variant goes to show how global medical cooperation and collaboration is not just a matter of ethics. It’s also one more example of how the best solutions are often found collectively.

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