Programme Director, Dr Phil Mjwara;

International guests;

Government officials;

Scientists and researchers;

Members of the media;

Ladies and gentlemen:

In the second half of 2019, the world received the news that a virus of the corona family was causing thousands of deaths, and that its origin was unknown and that new patterns of behavior must be encouraged in order to deal with the global pandemic.

Its official name was “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2),” but popularly known as “coronavirus” or “COVID-19.”

After these news, a race started in the scientific world, notably in the field of health sciences, in order to develop effective treatments and vaccines to fight it.

The new patterns of behavior, imposed by governments, consisted of social isolation, and in some cases, lockdowns.

This global pandemic caused by the coronavirus has disrupted the lives of most people on the planet. The magnitude of such disruption can only be compared to that caused by World War II, but certainly surpasses it in scope, reach and global intensity.

Experts suggest that in order to better evaluate this situation, it should be divided into two waves. The first wave being associated with health issues and the second one with economic issues.

This pandemic may in all probability foster another wave – a third wave, in which if not handled carefully, could have disastrous effect, especially if this is driven by new and as yet unknown mutations.

This virtual conference underscores the seriousness and urgency with which the South African government is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has already taken more than two million lives in the world and about 48 000 in South Africa.

For the purpose of our discussion today, we will be talking about the 4IR, in the context in which citizens of the world receive information with lightning speed via new media platforms. 

While this is beneficial for communicating information to deal with COVID-19, it is also true that the same platforms are easily hijacked for fake news and misinformation purposes.

This fake news and misinformation spectre is at the heart of the urgent need for this conference to dispel the prevailing myths about vaccines.  What complicates the fight against COVID-19 is that, while people are facing the real threat of losing their lives, fake news and misinformation are causing them to be paranoid and to doubt the usefulness of vaccines and other public health interventions. 

There is a sense in which vaccines are being painted, almost ludicrously, as yet another "pandemic" that should be avoided at all costs.  Yet vaccines have been providing immunity against infectious diseases for over 200 years, in the process saving millions of lives across the globe.

Science, technology and innovation are central to the development of vaccines.  There is nothing to worry about, because the science driving the development process involves peer-reviewed research and multiple and independent levels of trials of candidate vaccines.  This is to ensure that vaccines administered to the public are safe and efficacious.

Ladies and gentlemen, Edward Jenner's innovations are well documented.  He started by using cowpox material to create immunity against smallpox.  That was more than 200 years ago.  There have been a number of vaccines since then. 

Louis Pasteur's 1885 rabies vaccine was next to make an impact in combating human disease.  This point is made to remind the public that vaccines and vaccination did not arise with the outbreak of COVID-19.  Furthermore, there is reason to believe that there will be other pandemics that will need appropriate vaccines in the future.

South Africa, through the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), has invested in infrastructure to enable world-class research in genomics, epidemiology, vaccine manufacturing and other relevant fields.  The DSI has also invested in human resources development initiatives to ensure a pipeline of knowledge workers to advance the country's scientific endeavours.

We remain grateful for these investments, and to the talent that exists in this country, that our knowledge workers and facilities have been able to contribute to the global body of knowledge on COVID-19 – including the detection of new variants of the novel coronavirus. 

My Department is funding the completion of the sequencing of 10 000 SARS-CoV-2 genomes in South Africa and Africa.  To date, the Department has spent R69,4 million on funding for COVID-19 research and innovation, covering twenty (21) projects.

As we are gathered today, there are two studies that are being supported in the area of vaccines.

The first is on the plant-based manufacturing of antibodies for COVID19.  This study aims to facilitate the rapid development of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines, therapeutic antibodies and diagnostic reagents by utilising various plant-based expression platforms for advancing the production of vaccine candidates and reagents against SARS-CoV-2. 

The good news is that the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has entered into an agreement with Kentucky Biological Products (KBP) for the potential manufacturing of the antigen of their vaccine.  The KBP vaccine is manufactured using specific tobacco plants. 

The CSIR has the ability to expand their facility for plant-based expression systems to manufacture the antigen needed for the vaccine.  KBP has also expressed interest in testing the vaccine in South Africa.  The total DSI investment in this study is in the region of R2,4 million.

The second study, led by Wits University, relates to the ChAdOx1 nCOV-19 (commonly known as the Oxford-Astrazenica) vaccine trial.  The DSI is funding the study in partnership with the South African Medical Research Council. 

The study is aimed at assessing the safety, immunogenicity and efficacy of the vaccine candidate in South African adults living without HIV, and its safety and immunogenicity in a small cohort of adults living with HIV.  This is part of an international study aimed not only at finding an effective COVID-19 vaccine, but also at understanding if the vaccine will be effective in local settings.

The ChAdOx1 nCOV-19 vaccine was developed at the Jenner Institute in Oxford in collaboration with AstraZeneca.  It is currently on trial in a number of countries including South Africa, Brazil, the USA, UK, Australia and Europe.  The preliminary results indicate that the vaccine reduces virus transmission based on observed reduction in asymptomatic infections.  They indicate that the vaccine is at least 62% effective when given in two full-strength doses, which is considerably lower than the 94% percent efficacy achieved by the vaccine candidates of Pfizer and Moderna.

It is of course noteworthy to mention that the Oxford vaccine is touted as the most suitable for developing countries due to its cost and relative ease of storage, which makes it easier to distribute.  The vaccine is being considered for approval by the European Medicines Agency, while approval has already been granted by regulatory authorities in the UK, India, Mexico, Bangladesh and Argentina.  The total investment in the study is R4,5 million.

We are now working towards collaboration with China, Russia and Cuba in the areas of vaccines and vaccine development.

As an African country, we recognise the fact that African people have from time immemorial gathered tremendous experience in how to deal with human diseases.  It is for this reason that the importance of African traditional medicine has been recognised at the highest level in the fight against COVID-19.  The World Health Organization (WHO) has established a committee to provide independent scientific advice and support to countries on the safety, efficacy and quality of traditional medicine therapies.

It should also be noted that much of modern medicine is based on the extraction and synthesis of compounds found in nature, which is the fundamental basis of traditional medicines. We acknowledge, however, that there are still challenges in the efforts to enhance research and development of traditional medicines for COVID-19 in the continent. 

South Africa is in a position to share its experience and knowledge, as it was selected as the Chair of the WHO-AFRO Regional Expert Committee, African Union and Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

South Africa has invested considerably in African traditional medicines through its Indigenous Knowledge Systems Programme.  In providing leadership in these areas, the DSI has presided over the establishment of legislation in this regard.  We have also established an Indigenous Knowledge-Based COVID-19 Research Team, which is a consortium of healer organisations, science councils, universities, incubators and government departments.

As evidence of the ground covered in the field of indigenous knowledge (IK), the DSI is working with the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) to develop frameworks for African medicine regulation, clinical trials and registration for commercialisation. 

My Department's funded research in this area includes agronomy and phytochemical studies on selected medicinal herbs to determine chemical entities capable of combating SARS viruses and other respiratory infections.  Among others, we are funding ongoing research on anti-coronavirus activities, immune modulations, synergy studies and mechanisms of action to determine pathways against cytokine storms.  We are also planning a comparative clinical trials study which will soon be submitted to SAHPRA for approval.

The DSI's collaboration with our institutions of higher learning is a highly productive one.  In this regard, the Department has supported the establishment of:

  • an IK-Based Health Research Unit at the University of the Free State;
  • an African Medicines Laboratory at the University of KwaZulu-Natal;
  • an IK-Based Bioprospecting Facility at the University of Pretoria; and
  • an IK-Based Product Development Infrastructure at the CSIR, Agricultural Research Council, Innovation Hub and South African Bureau of Standards.

The DSI has also established an IK-Based Technology Unit at the Technology Innovation Agency, and a National Indigenous Products Programme at the Industrial Development Corporation.  We have collaborators in China, Canada, Switzerland, Germany and the USA.

Ladies and gentlemen

As I conclude, allow me to return to the point about fake news and misinformation.  The current environment is fraught with all manner of conspiracy theories that often result in poor decision-making at both individual and group level. 

Among these are the 5G myths that have led to cellphone towers being destroyed in some parts of our country.  The public must be informed that the COVID-19 virus is purely biological and has no roots in any Fourth Industrial Revolution technology like 5G.  I am pleased that this conference includes a session dedicated to dealing with such conspiracy theories.

With these few words, I invite each one of you to engage in an open and critical discussion about the role of vaccination in resolving the COVID-19 pandemic.  I trust that you will, by the end of this conference, emerge with a greater understanding of the emergence of new variants of the novel coronavirus across the globe and their impact on the spread of the pandemic.

Locally and globally, lockdown restrictions have placed communities under immense stress.  The negative impact on the economy has resulted in job losses and the worsening of poverty and inequality. 

While the vulnerability and helplessness of the poor have become more pronounced, the wealthy classes have been able to cushion and insulate themselves against the worst effects of the pandemic.  I will be following with interest the discussion of these and related issues in the session on the social impact of COVID-19.

I wish you all the best in your deliberations.

Thank you.