The first participants in South Africa’s first clinical trial that seeks to develop a vaccine against COVID-19 will be vaccinated this week.

The first clinical trial in the country and on the continent for a COVID-19 vaccine was announced on Tuesday at a virtual press conference hosted by the University of the Witwatersrand.

Two-thousand people will form part of the country’s trials. The first group consists of 50 HIV negative people who will be vaccinated this week.

Later this month, another 1 900 will be added who will get a different and stronger dosage of the vaccine.

The test groups will be people aged between 18 and 65 years old.

Over 100 000 South Africans have tested positive for COVID-19 and over 1 900 have died since March when the President declared a state of disaster and national lockdown.

By 17 June 2020, South Africa contributed to 30% of all diagnosed cases and 23% of all coronavirus related deaths on the African continent.

These statistics emphasise the urgent need for prevention of COVID-19 on the continent.

Landmark moment for SA

Wits University is collaborating with the University of Oxford and the Oxford Jenner Institute on the South African trial.

Professor of Vaccinology at Wits University Shabir Madhi says, “This is a landmark moment for South Africa and Africa at this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic. As we enter winter in South Africa and pressure increases on public hospitals, now more than ever we need a vaccine to prevent infection by COVID-19.”

“We began screening participants for the vaccine trial last week and the first participants will be vaccinated this week,” adds Madhi.

Prior to launch, the study was subject to rigorous review and has been approved by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) and the Human Research Ethics Committee of the university.

Following public comment, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries approved import of the investigational vaccine for use in the trial.

In the video below, watch the launch of the vaccine trial:

SA participation in international trials

The vaccine is already being evaluated in a large clinical trial in the United Kingdom where more than 4 000 participants have already been enrolled.

Similar studies are about to start in Brazil, with an even larger study of the same vaccine of up to 30 000 participants is planned in the USA.

“It is essential that vaccine studies are performed in southern hemisphere countries, including in the African region, concurrently with studies in northern hemisphere countries,” says Professor Helen Rees, Chair of SAHPRA and Executive Director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute.

“This allows evaluation of the efficacy and safety of candidate vaccines to be assessed in a global context, failing which the introduction of many life-saving vaccines into public immunization programmes for low-middle income countries frequently lags behind those in high-income countries.”