Africa launches its first human trial for COVID-19 vaccine

by Joseph Opoku Gakpo

July 1, 2020

Africa has begun its first human trial of a potential COVID-19 vaccine in a bid to better position the continent to access medicine that can contain the pandemic.

Scientists at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg say the vaccine is being administered to about 2,000 volunteers across South Africa to monitor their response over the next 12 months.

“The reason we are doing this is that we want the people in Africa to access this drug just like the people in the northern hemisphere,” Prof. Johnny Mahlangu, one of the scientists leading the trial, told Ghana-based Joy FM in an interview.  “We don’t just want the northern hemisphere to have the drug, have it for its people, and then we are actually left on our own. If we participate in the development of this vaccine, we would be seen as partners. When it becomes available, partners would also benefit, including participants in the study. So, the benefits are huge.”

Mahlungu, a clinical haematologist and head of the School of Pathology at the University of Witwatersrand, said Africa also stands to benefit from the research associated with the trial.

“There will be lots and lots of knowledge generated as a result of this study. And we want to be able to say that that knowledge came from Africa, it came from South Africa, it came from Wits University,” he said proudly in a telephone interview with Joy FM.

The vaccine, which goes by the technical name ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, was developed by researchers at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. Researchers hope it will protect people against the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The vaccine has already been tested on about 4,000 people in the UK as part of the ongoing trial, which is simultaneously taking place in Brazil and will soon begin in the United States.

South Africans are excited about the trial, Mahlangu said.

“I think this trial has been received very well in South Africa,” he observed. “In the last 20 years, I have conducted over 80 clinical trials. I have been particularly surprised at the level at which people want to come and be part of the solution, as opposed to being part of the problem.”

Junior Mhlongo, one of 15 early participants in the vaccine trial, told DW-TV in an interview that he felt “a little bit scared” after taking the vaccine shot. “But I want to know what’s going on with this vaccine so I can tell my friends and others what’s going on in these times.”

The South African Health Products Regulatory Authority and the Human Research Ethics Committee of the University of the Witwatersrand undertook a vigorous vetting exercise to ensure the planned process was safe before the greenlight was given. Mahlangu offered assurances that the trial vaccine is safe.

“The level of risk has already been evaluated in over 4,000 individuals in the UK,” he explained. “The risk is very, very minimal. It’s a flu virus that has been inactivated and is known not to cause any infection. We know now from the trials in UK that it is safe. The other component [in the vaccine] is the genetic material that has been derived from COVID-19. That has also been inactivated. So, it is unable to cause COVID-19. So, we are dealing with a relatively safe vaccine on the basis of the data that is available at the moment.”

South Africa’s ‘bold’ step

COVID-19 currently has no approved cure or vaccine. About 149 vaccines are currently under development all over the world by research institutions, universities, government agencies and pharmaceutical companies, according to the World Health Organization, and 17 have reached the human trial stage. None of these vaccines are being developed in Africa, a situation attributed mainly to lack of investment in health infrastructure and research generally over the years.

Dr. Michael Owusu, a clinical microbiologist and lecturer at the Department of Medical Diagnostics at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, said the only way to be certain COVID-19 vaccines will work in Africa is to have Africans participate in the human vaccine trials.

“A lot of the COVID-19 vaccines are being tried in Asia, North America and Europe. If we wait for them to finish their trials and bring it here, it is possible it will not work for us. Because what we call the ‘host genomic makeup’ of Africans is different from Europeans and Asians,” he explained to the Alliance for Science in an interview.

“And so, when you are trying a drug like a vaccine, it’s good to use different populations to understand how different groups will respond to the vaccine. So that if it works well, then we know it’s going to work for the continent and so we can use it to protect people. If you exclude Africa from the trials and the vaccine works, how sure are you that if it comes to Africa, it’s going to work?” Owusu asked.

He commended South Africa for taking the giant step to participate. “This is the way to go. And I think South Africa has been bold to go in for this.”

Will a vaccine help Africa contain the pandemic?

As of the end of June, about 10 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been recorded all over the world, with more than 500,000 deaths, according to WHO data. The continent has over 383,000 confirmed cases and more 9,600 deaths, according to data from the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus was first discovered in Asia, then the epicenter of infection moved to Europe, South America and North America, prompting warnings that cases in Africa could spike as the pandemic continues to spread.

Owusu believes vaccines remain the surest way to protect the African population effectively from the pandemic.

“The only way for us now to prevent infection and possible deaths is to get the vaccine. This is a new virus. Nobody is immune to the virus. Everybody is susceptible. So, if it enters into a country, it will run through the country until majority of people become infected. If you are not careful many people will die,” Owusu cautioned.

“So, for me, I think vaccine is the sure way to go… Vaccines are good. Since we are going to live with COVID-19 for a long time, the only thing that will help us get back to normal is to get a vaccine. Once we get a vaccine, many people can become immune and may not be infected and even if they are infected, they will have a level of immunity to prevent prevent subsequent infection,” he added.

The African Union Ministers of Health and Heads of Delegation threw their support behind the continent’s ongoing COVID-19 clinical trials after a two-day virtual meeting last week. After days of deliberation, they issued a statement calling for the development of a “continent-wide clinical trial network to better connect organizations that are supporting efforts to test potential vaccine candidates.”

The meeting announced a vaccine strategy for the coronavirus disease in Africa that includes securing sufficient vaccine supply, removing barriers to vaccine roll-out and strengthening capacity to adopt and scale-up COVID-19 vaccine distribution once clinical approval of a viable vaccine candidate is achieved.

The African Union also called for an equitable and timely allocation and distribution of vaccine supply within the African continent, both across and within countries, taking into account equity in gender and socioeconomic status. The Union further observed that identifying and scaling-up an effective COVID-19 vaccine is critical to slow the spread of the disease.

The African Union also called for an effective regulatory control structure for COVID-19 vaccines, including implementing indemnification for vaccine manufacturers, fast-tracking regulatory approvals at the country level and maintaining a robust infrastructure for the ongoing monitoring of vaccine efficacy and safety.