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Coronavirus research booms at shuttered SA universities

Images: DFID via wikimedia Commons, Derek Keats via Flickr [both CC BY 2.0] and NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

Projects range from 3D printing medical equipment to research on bats

South Africa’s universities are busy with a slew of research projects to combat the spread of Covid-19, including manufacture of preventive products.

The Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology outlined all the currently available research projects at South African universities in a virtual meeting of Parliament on 21 April.

All universities bar the troubled Fort Hare and fledgling Sol Plaatje and Mpumalanga are conducting Covid-19 research or producing material to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, SARS-Cov-2.

Many universities are using 3D printing technology to produce medical equipment and personal preventive equipment, including masks and face shields. Many are also producing sanitisers for use by their local communities. Several ventilator-related projects are on the go.

On the research side, projects are numerous and thematically diverse. Nelson Mandela University and ICT industry partners are working on a cloud-based identification system that will help trace Covid-19 patients throughout the health system.

Various universities and projects are using artificial intelligence and modelling to understand the spread of the virus throughout the country. Many are also involved in a World Health Organization clinical trial to test the effectiveness of remdesivir, lopinavir/ritonavir, lopinavir/ritonavir plus interferon, and chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine against the novel coronavirus.

The University of Cape Town’s extensive array of projects includes genetic mapping of SARS-Cov-2 strains, producing antibodies, vaccine development, diagnostics, and the ability to rapidly scale up production of any potential treatment or vaccine. UCT’s health sciences faculty has set up measures to fast-track Covid-19 study approvals.

The University of Pretoria is leading a national project for rapid testing for Covid-19 as well as conducting basic research on bats, which are believed to be carriers for SARS-Cov-2.

The University of the Western Cape, the South African National Bioinformatics Institute and National Institute for Communicable Diseases are undertaking SARS-Cov-2 genome sequencing.

The University of the Witwatersrand has won a grant from the national health department to boost Covid-19 disease surveillance and search for new treatments or vaccines.

Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University has developed guidelines for oral health care and pharmacists in response to Covid-19. Researchers at the university are working on an audit tool to gauge the readiness of the provincial health department of Gauteng—the worst affected province at present—to deal with the pandemic.

Stellenbosch University researchers are working on projects to reduce harm to health workers exposed to SARS-Cov-2 and co-infection with tuberculosis.

At the University of KwaZulu-Natal researchers are examining the “lived experiences” of patients diagnosed with Covid-19 as well as a project on the ethical and legal aspects related to the pandemic.