As government tackles the COVID-19 pandemic through a comprehensive approach to control the spread of the disease, the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) has redirected R4 million from some of its projects to research into the novel corona virus.


With research and development at the heart of its work, the Department is supporting local research that will focus on surveillance, therapeutics and understanding the local epidemiology and natural history of the virus, which has infected in South Africa 62 people so far.


Given the rapid spread of the virus, and government's commitment to containing it, President Cyril Ramaphosa has declared the outbreak a national disaster and established a National Command Council comprising several ministries that will meet three times a week.


An interministerial sub-committee has been established to coordinate a national framework for research on COVID-19. 


The Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, is part of the interministerial panel tasked with implementing protocols planned to curb the spread of the virus. Addressing the media yesterday, the panel outlined their plans to tackle the outbreak.


Dr Nzimande said the DSI would make R4 million available to some interventions and will be costing the rest and mobilising for additional funds.


"Through the DSI, we are engaging with the Department of Health, the Medical Research Council, and the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority with a view to mobilising funding, reprioritising research strategies and creating an enabling ethical and regulatory framework to facilitate research on the COVID-19 virus.


"Given the recent emergence of COVID-19 at a global level and the concomitant lack of adequate information on the epidemiology, therapeutic management or natural history of COVID-19 or vaccine availability, it is important for researchers in South Africa to coordinate a response to the outbreak to facilitate its control," said Dr Nzimande. 


In Africa, the natural history of COVID-19 has not been established and the risk factors for transmission and clinical outcome are unknown.


"Thus, there is an urgent need to describe the epidemiology of COVID-19 in our country, as well as to address diagnostic, therapeutic, host and viral factors that may facilitate transmission or protect against infection," said the Minister.


Currently, it appears that there is very low mortality in children under nine years of age.  Global deaths from the virus so far are highest in older men, smokers and people with underlying lung and immune disorders.


Government is particularly concerned that South Africa, with its high HIV and TB burden, may face a protracted coronavirus outbreak if these conditions cause prolonged viral shedding.


The DSI is looking at making further funds available for research, including research with a focus on the World Health Organisation's common protocol. Research topics to be considered for funding include diagnostic tests, targeted surveillance to establish risk factors among frontline staff at airports, trials for the therapeutic and prophylactic treatment of health care workers, the identification of antibodies in patients in South Africa who have successfully cleared the infection, and vaccine development.


Strategies for the management of mild, moderate and severe COVID-19 infections will be considered and prioritised for further development, costing and implementation. The regulatory and ethics research agenda will include the review and approval of ethical and regulatory challenges pertaining to clinical research.


"We are also going to prioritise surveillance strategies with a view to funding the top priorities," said Dr Nzimande.


The DSI, with its extensive portfolio of international cooperation instruments, will also facilitate South Africa's participation in international research and innovation to support the fight against COVID-19.


Globally the disease has already infected over 160 000 people in more than 150 countries, territories and regions, and resulted in thousands of deaths, mainly among the elderly.


Infectious disease researchers at Austin's University of Texas studying the coronavirus (a team of scientists from the United States, France, China and Hong Kong) were able to identify the speed at which the virus can spread, a factor that may help public health officials in their efforts at containment. They found that time between cases in a chain of transmission is less than a week and that more than 10% of patients are infected by somebody who has the virus but does not yet have symptoms.


Their study, in press with the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, is among the first to estimate the rate of asymptomatic transmission.  It relates to the calculation of what is called the serial interval of the virus. To measure the serial interval, scientists look at the time it takes for symptoms to appear in two people with the virus – the person who infects another, and the second infected person.


Researchers found that the average serial interval for the coronavirus in China was approximately four days.  


The speed of an epidemic depends on two things – how many people each case infects and how long it takes for infection between people to spread. The first quantity is called the reproduction number; the second is the serial interval. The short serial interval of COVID-19 means emerging outbreaks will grow quickly and could be difficult to stop, the researchers said.