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Science department allocates R4m to fund COVID-19 research

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As the South African government readies interventions in response to the local outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19), the science and innovation department has committed funds to facilitate research on the virus.

So far, South Africa has 62 cases of the virus that has affected over 180 000 persons across the globe, killing 7 178, with 79 911 recoveries. President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday declared a state of disaster in response to the deadly disease.

Higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande confirmed yesterday his department will reprioritise R4 million from other projects to some of the COVID-19-related proposed interventions.

Nzimande oversees both the Department of Higher Education and Training and DSI, following the merger of the two entities last year.

According to the minister, the DSI is engaging the Department of Health, the Medical Research Council and the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority, to mobilise funding, reprioritise research strategies and create an enabling ethical and regulatory framework to facilitate COVID-19 research.

He states: “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 co-ordinate a response to the outbreak to facilitate its control.

“On our continent – Africa – the natural history of COVID-19 has not been established and the risk factors for transmission and clinical outcome are unknown.

“Therefore, 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.”

Nzimande says what remains concerning is SA’s high HIV and TB burden, which may result in an extended coronavirus outbreak.

As a result, the minister emphasises local research to focus on surveillance, therapeutics and understanding the local epidemiology and natural history. “In this regard, we have established a sub-committee to co-ordinate a national framework for research on COVID-19.”

Preventive measures

Turning to some of the interventions adopted by his department to curb the spread of the disease, Nzimande reveals it has added video conferencing.

Last week, industry experts and government officials alike noted the global outbreak of the deadly coronavirus will be a defining moment for the Internet, as physical events, work and classes move to an online environment.

By video conferencing, the department can appropriately service its international cooperation portfolio without the need for any outgoing international travel, or receiving incoming delegations, notes Nzimande.

“All major international meetings we were due to host in the coming weeks have been postponed and we will be able to satisfactorily mitigate against the impact of these postponements.

“We are alert to opportunities for international research and innovation partnerships to support the fight against COVID-19 and will facilitate South Africa’s participation in such cooperation using our extensive portfolio of international cooperation instruments – South African researchers are, for example, already involved in relevant projects funded by the European Union.”

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