Professor Salim Abdool Karim’s new book details South Africa’s response to COVID-19

Reading Time: 3 minutes

South Africa did not respond quickly enough to secure COVID-19 vaccines in 2020 during the global pandemic. This is one of the revelations in Professor Salim Abdool Karim’s debut novel “Standing Up for Science”.

In his new book, the world-renowned clinical infectious diseases epidemiologist charts his personal account from the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, with lessons for future scientists.

“I remember the day almost like it was today. It was the 30th of December 2019! My family and I, we had just driven to the Midlands and we were walking in the mountains on a hike and my iWatch, it made a beep and giving me a notification. So, I stopped and I read the notice, Promed alert cases of undiagnosed pneumonia in Wuhan, China. I looked at that a bit strangely, what is this? And I thought ‘ah maybe a few cases of Sars, the Chinese know they’ve dealt with it before. No big deal,” says Karim.

Karim says he learnt about the sequence of this virus and understood the potential threat it posed, however, was in a state of denial and he thought maybe the virus will not spread as fast.

“On the 5th of March, there’s the announcement, a couple had just come back from Italy. My denial was truly completely washed away and that meant we went into action mode.”

He says South Africa didn’t do well enough saying the country wanted to support Covax. However, the country did not need to align itself “with company X or Y”.

Karim says, “Covax was the mechanism set up by the WHO to create equitable distribution of the vaccine… But once we decided to go with Coax, our country equivocated, we had a deadline to make our first payment in Sept 2020. We missed that. We were given a 30-day extension, we missed that deadline. That meant we were now at the back of the queue in Covax. Our country should have made its commitment to Covax and paid its money timeously. The drug company executives were making the decisions on who got vaccines first. It had little to do with anything else. They were protecting markets that were favourable to them.”

Professor Karim, who is based at the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in Durban, is also a Special Adviser on pandemics to the Director-General of the World Health Organisation.

COVID-19 Pandemic | Standing up for Science: Prof Salim Abdool Karim’s personal account of being on the frontlines of the pandemic 

Karim confesses that medicine was not his first choice at university, with his passions being computer programming and engineering. He credits his high school maths and physics teachers with nurturing his love for learning.

He also shared detailed memories about his dear mother and what the support of his wife, Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim, means to him.

“She would wake up as well at 4 am and make me a cup of tea. She would sit across the way from me. She would be reading the Quran or something just to be there for me. It’s hard to place a value on that. It’s just saying I’m here for you and in many ways. Quarraisha has that incredible ability. She’s always there. I know that if there’s any challenge or issue, I know she’s always there and she has my back,” says Karim.

Karim says he would like for his legacy to be that what he has contributed, has helped make the world a better place and the second one is, he hopes that he was a good father and a good person.