Science Forum South Africa highlights local scientific excellence in responding to COVID-19

The opening of the Department of Science and Innovation's (DSI's) annual Science Forum South Africa didn't disappoint, as the country's scientific expertise and infrastructure came under the spotlight.


Day 1 of the proceedings kicked off with the launch of the DSI's Annual Report for 2020/21 (click here to view a summary of the Annual Report). Presented by the Director-General, Dr Phil Mjwara, the report showed a year under review that was overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which profoundly disrupted livelihoods, public health and economies worldwide.


Dr Mjwara said this period brought science, technology and innovation (STI) and the role of the DSI to the fore, as the Department adapted its plans and rolled out initiatives to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, coordinating responses to the pandemic across the national system of innovation (NSI).


As with other departments, the DSI's budget was reduced – from R8,7 to R7,3 billion – to free up funds for addressing the health crisis and the economic fallout that ensued. This meant that some annual targets had to be revised downwards. Notwithstanding these challenges, the DSI was able to achieve most of its targets.


The Director-General highlighted a number of achievements (click here to view the DG's presentation), including genomic sequencing, the local design and manufacture of ventilators, and a high-tech monitoring and surveillance initiative to track the virus, which the audience welcomed as beneficial not only to South Africa but to Africa as a whole.


The Department is also driving the establishment of local vaccine production with various partners including the World Health Organization. The Director-General warned that vaccination was the only way to effectively contain the novel coronavirus, and called on people to get vaccinated in order to prevent hospitalisation or worse.


The DG's presentation was followed by a robust panel discussion featuring local and international experts, whose biographies are summarised briefly as follows:


Dr Martin Friede, WHO mRNA Vaccine Hub Coordinator


Dr Martin Friede leads the vaccine research unit at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. In this position, Dr Friede provides leadership for the WHO's activities on vaccine research, including the development of vaccine research policies, strategies and priorities, and assistance to countries to establish vaccine R&D and production. Prior to this, he held several positions within the WHO, including leading the organisation's technology transfer activities as well as its research into therapeutic interventions for Ebola. Prior to joining the WHO, Dr Friede held several senior positions in the vaccine industry. He received his PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Cape Town.


Dr Lawrence Banks, Director-General of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology


Dr Lawrence Banks has been group leader for tumour virology at the ICGEB in Trieste, Italy for the last 30 years, making seminal contributions to the understanding of how human papillomaviruses cause cervical cancer. Institutionally, he has always been committed to the use of science to promote capacity enhancement in low-resource settings. He became ICGEB Scientific Coordinator in 2016, and was elected Director-General in 2019. He is committed to advancing scientific research at the ICGEB laboratories in Trieste, New Delhi and Cape Town, and contributing to the advanced education of young scientists to promote science and technology-intensive solutions for improved quality of life. Dr Banks received his PhD in Microbiology from Leeds University in 1984.


Dr Shamila Nair-Bedouelle, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences


Dr Shamila Nair-Bedouelle took up her current position at UNECSO in April 2019, after serving as Director of OzonAction under the UN Environment Programme since 2012. At UNEP, she was responsible for implementing the Multilateral Fund of the Montreal Protocol, and coordinated a unique network of 147 national OzonAction offices, providing developing countries with scientific and technical advice on alternative technologies to avoid using substances that deplete the ozone layer. A strong advocate for enhancing the role of women in science and engineering, she established UNEP's first training programme for women technicians. Dr Nair-Bedouelle received her PhD in Life Sciences from the University of Cape Town.


Dr Thulani Dlamini, CEO of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research


Dr Thulani Dlamini was appointed CEO of the CSIR in February 2017. Dr Dlamini was instrumental in the establishment of the Photonics Initiative of South Africa and the development of a national strategy for photonics research, development and innovation. He holds a PhD in Chemistry from the University of the Witwatersrand and a Master's in Business Leadership from the University of South Africa, and has completed advanced courses in technology management through institutions including the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland. A member of the Academy of Science of South Africa, he has served, among others, on the boards of the Automotive Industry Development Centre and Sasol Technology UK and Netherlands.


Dr Val Munsami, CEO of the South African National Space Agency


Dr Val Munsami was appointed CEO of SANSA in January 2017. He is the current Chair of the African Union Space Working Group, which developed the African Space Policy and Strategy that was approved by the AU Heads of State in January this year. He was previously involved in strategy and policy development for the South African national space programme, and as Chief Specialist for Astronomy at the Department of Science and Technology, was involved in the development of the National Multi-Wavelength Astronomy Strategy and the Square Kilometre Array Readiness Strategy.  Dr Munsami received his PhD in Physics from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a Master's in Business Leadership from the University of South Africa.


Mr Daniel Ndima, Founder and CEO of CapeBio Technologies


Mr Daniel Ndima is the Founding CEO of CapeBio Technologies, a South African applied genomics and biotech company that develops life science tools and molecular biology reagent enzyme kits to empower African scientists, R&D institutions and companies to innovate in the academic and healthcare industries. CapeBio recently developed a PCR testing kit for the novel coronavirus. Mr Ndima advocates strongly for science that creates jobs, alleviates poverty and contributes to national development. He has served as a non-executive director and board member for various youth and entrepreneurial development non-profit organisations, founded three start-ups while still an undergraduate, and holds a Master's in Biochemistry (specialising in structural biology) from the University of Pretoria.


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