SA's Covid-19 vaccine trial begins as 8 Soweto residents enter medical history books

A patient receives a Covid-19 vaccination at an undisclosed hospital in Johannesburg on Wednesday. The patient was one of the first to take part in an international vaccine trial.
A patient receives a Covid-19 vaccination at an undisclosed hospital in Johannesburg on Wednesday. The patient was one of the first to take part in an international vaccine trial.
Image: Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times

Eight South Africans entered SA’s medical history books on Wednesday when they became the first citizens to take part in a global Covid-19 vaccine trial.

The eight, who are from Soweto, are among 2,000 people from across Gauteng who will take part in the project.

The aim of the trial is to find a vaccine for the deadly coronavirus, which to date has infected over 106,000 South Africans and killed more than 2,100 people.

The trial is being run from three undisclosed medical facilities in Gauteng, in conjunction with researchers from Oxford University in the UK, Wits University and the SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC). Medical scientists from Brazil and the US are also involved in the trial.

The medical facilities are not being disclosed because of fears of potential intimidation of the volunteers and medical staff involved in the trial.

Shabir Madhi, professor of vaccinology at Wits University and director of the SAMRC's vaccine and infectious diseases analytics unit, who is leading the SA study, said Wednesday was an exciting moment.

“I won’t lie — this has been keeping me up at night. It’s the safety of this trial that is the most important thing,” he said.

Madhi said the 2,000 participants would be divided into two groups. “The eight here today will form part of group 1, which is the smallest group. Others will also be added to this group.

“In terms of what is happening with the groups, we will be looking into the safety of vaccine in terms of side effects and how well participants’ bodies build an immune response to the vaccine.”

He said the participants had been randomly selected, with half to receive a placebo and the other half the vaccine. “Only the pharmacist and the administrator of the vaccine know who receives what and who is assigned to which group.”

He said there would be follow-up investigations with the participants every two weeks. “This is to investigate whether they are showing any signs or symptoms of Covid-19. If symptoms are shown, the participants will be brought back to the centres, where normal Covid-19 testing procedures will be followed.”

He said once 42 of the participants had developed Covid-19, “then we will begin to do our analysis of the vaccine and compare the results of the two groups to each other, in terms of any differences in regards to serious adverse effects.

“We will do an efficiency analysis of the vaccine to see if it does protect against Covid-19 and whether it is able to reduce the risk of a person developing the virus.

“With these trials we are aiming for the vaccine to bring about a 60% reduction in people being at risk of developing the virus.”

Madhi said scientists in SA currently estimated that the reproduction rate of Covid-19 was that each infected person was infecting at least two other people.

“To flatten the curve, we need to get the virus’s reproduction rate down to less than one person being infected by another,” he said.

“Even under lockdown level 5, we did not have this — with the infection rate more than two people being infected by a single person. We are not sure about natural immunisation or even how long it lasts for. Hence this vaccine trial.”

Sowetan father of two Junior Mhlongo, 24, said he was excited to be part of history.

“I want to learn about the virus. I want doctors to be able to learn from me to help others. This is important. I am doing it to help — not for any other reason,” he said, speaking moments after receiving an injection at a Gauteng facility.

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