The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life as we know it. But it has also galvanised rapid adaptation to change and the adoption of new technologies. Eminent academics at Wits University in disciplines including epidemiology, medicine, public health, biomedical engineering, governance, and others, are the unsung heroes leading the charge against COVID-19.

An army of heroic scientists at Wits are helping to understand, predict, and contain COVID-19, manage the public health and socio-economic impact, and develop treatment and care regimens [Image: Shutterstock].

In concert with the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD), the Department of Health, and the South African government, an army of heroic scientists at Wits are helping to understand, predict, and contain COVID-19, manage the public health and socio-economic impact, and develop treatment and care regimens.

The Wits heroes mentioned here represent just a fraction of the University’s community of clinical, academic, professional and support staff, alumni and students working tirelessly and contributing in multiple ways to mitigate this state of disaster.

UNDERSTANDING THE ENEMY

  • Professor of Epidemiology in the Wits School of Public Health, Prof Cheryl Cohen is a medical doctor and co-head of the Centre for Respiratory Disease and Meningitis at the NICD. She is at the forefront of COVID-19 case-finding, diagnosis, management, and public health response.

  • Professor Adriano Duse is Head of Department of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at Wits. Closely associated with the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS), in March, Prof Duse delivered a public lecture entitled, Myths and Facts about SARS-CoV-2: The COVID-19 Outbreak 2019-2020 – What you can do to reduce infection risk. In January he delivered a radio Masterclass on Superbugs.
  • Wits lecturer, Dr Kerrigan McCarthy is a clinical microbiologist and Head of the Division of Public Health, Surveillance, and Response at the NICD. Her responsibilities include oversight of the Outbreak Response Unit, Notifiable Medical Conditions, and GERMS-SA surveillance.
  • Microbiologist Professor Lynn Morris is a research professor in the School of Pathology at Wits and the Interim Executive Director of the NICD. Prof Morris is internationally recognised for her work in understanding how the antibody response to HIV develops. A National Research Foundation A-rated scientist, she is amongst the most highly cited researchers in the world. Morris has a lifetime’s experience fighting viruses.

UNDERSTANDING EACH OTHER

  • A Distinguished Professor of Medical Anthropology and Public Health, Professor Lenore Manderson is internationally renowned for her work in anthropology, social history, and public health. The advent of COVID-19 prompted the Institute of Plumbing South Africa (IOPSA) to contact Wits. Given the requirement of taps and plumbing for handwashing, hygiene, and sanitation against the virus, coupled with social distancing, quarantining, and isolation protocols, plumbers were understandably concerned. Prof Manderson delivered a Q&A webinar for their members.

  • Associate Professor Jo Vearey is the Director of the African Centre for Migration & Society at Wits, and Director of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) Centre of Excellence on Migration & Mobility. Given that the coronavirus spread originally via travelling, in articles for Daily Maverick Prof Vearey cautioned against “hypocrisy in a time of COVID -19” and advocated that “foreign migrants be included in the COVID -19 response”. She also discussed how SA’s impending winter, an historical HIV-AIDS pandemic, and xenophobic attitudes combine to generate surprising and unexpected responses to Covid-19 in a podcast.

TOWARDS TREATMENT

  • Professor Helen Rees is Executive Director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (Wits RHI). She chairs the World Health Organization’s (WHO) African Regional Immunisation Technical Advisory Group and she is Co-Chair of WHO’s Ebola Vaccine Working Group. SA is one of 10 countries involved in an urgent global trial, “Solidarity”, announced by the WHO to identify the most effective treatment for coronavirus.

VIDEO INTERVIEW WITH PROF REES

  • Professor of Vaccinology and paediatrician, Professor Shabir Madhi is Director of the Medical Research Council Respiratory and Meningeal Pathogens Research Unit (RMPRU) at Wits. Prof Madhi holds the NRF/SARChI Chair in Vaccine Preventable Diseases. His research has focused on the epidemiology and clinical development of lifesaving vaccines against pneumonia and diarrhoeal disease and has informed the WHO recommendations on the use of the lifesaving pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, rotavirus vaccine, and influenza vaccination of pregnant women. He is the immediate past Director of the NICD and former President of the World Society of Infectious Diseases. He has consulted to the WHO in the fields of vaccinology and pneumonia and to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on pneumonia.
  • Renowned HIV expert, Professor Francois Venter is Director of Ezintsha and Deputy Executive Director of Wits RHI. With an active interest in public sector access to HIV services, medical ethics and human rights, Professor Venter is attuned to the impact of COVID-19 on those with comorbidities such as HIV and TB. He is an advisor to the South African government, to the Southern African HIV Clinicians Society, and to the WHO.

RADIO INTERVIEW WITH PROF VENTER

CARING FOR THE SICK

  • Professor Feroza Motara is Academic Head of Emergency Medicine in the School of Clinical Medicine at Wits and at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital – where the first COVID-19 patient in Gauteng was treated. Prof Motara has since December 2019, when news of the virus broke, been preparing her team and the hospital to care for the ill.

BIG DATA BATTLE LINES

  • Predicting and anticipating the trajectory of the virus to mitigate casualties and inform policy requires number-crunching, modelling, and analysis of Big Data. In March, an interdisciplinary team of researchers at Wits launched the most comprehensive data dashboard to date on the COVID-19 virus in SA. Wits School of Physics Professor Bruce Mellado-Garcier, who initiated the project, says: “We are experts in analysing and interpreting big data, and we believe that it is important that someone put this data together and present a bigger picture of the impact of the virus on the country.”
  • The Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO) has developed an interactive map showing the province’s vulnerability to COVID-19. Dr Julia De Kadt, et al, devised this Map of the Month. The GCRO is a partnership between Wits University, the University of Johannesburg, and the Gauteng Provincial Government. Its mandate is building strategic intelligence through improved data, information, analysis and reflective evaluation, for better planning, management and co-operative government.

EXPERT COMMENTARY ADVANCING POLICY

  • Professor Karen Hofman is Director of the SAMRC/Wits Centre for Health Economics and Decision Science (PRICELESS SA). A research-to-policy unit that provides evidence, methodologies and tools for effective decision-making in health, PRICELESS SA analyses how scarce resources can be used effectively, efficiently, and equitably to achieve better health outcomes. Prof Hofman, with Susan Goldstein, Deputy Director of PRICELESS SA, wrote one of the earliest articles advocating hand-washing, which has since become COVID-19 protocol.
  • Economist Professor Imraan Valodia, Dean of the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management at Wits, is currently coordinating an international study, in 10 cities, of the informal economy. His research interests include employment, the informal economy, gender, and industrialisation. He is a part-time member of the Competition Tribunal and a Commissioner on the Employment Conditions Commission and Chair of the National Minimum Wage Advisory Panel. “The COVID-19 crisis is first and foremost a health and humanitarian crisis that we are all living through, which is likely to have lasting impacts on how we live. It is also likely to have a lasting impact, in the long term, on how we conduct our economic lives,” Prof Valodia wrote in an article analysing the risks on economic inaction of COVID-19.
  • In the Wits School of Governance, Adjunct Professor Alex van den Heever holds the Chair in Social Security Systems Administration and Management studies. Prof van den Heever’s research interests span healthcare management, healthcare quality, healthcare delivery, cost, and economic analysis, health equity, health inequality and disparities, and preventive medicine. “We need a plan and action, not warnings of our impending doom. The actions pursued also need to do more than just shut SA down,” he wrote in an analysis of COVID-19: What the smart countries do… and we don’t.

INNOVATING AGAINST INFECTION

  • In the Faculty of Science, Head of the School of Molecular and Cell Biology, Professor Marianne Cronje and her team took the initiative to synthesise virus-killing surface disinfectant and provided limited quantities of this disinfectant freely to university workers ahead of lockdown. The production plant has now been shifted to PIMD, while the school retains scientific oversight.

In the school’s Protein Structure Function Research Unit, Professor Yasien Sayed coordinated the donation of 56 boxes of protective gloves to healthcare workers at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, after a Wits medical intern mentioned the shortage.

  • Michael Lucas, a PhD candidate in the School of Mechanical Engineering has developed a revolutionary infection control solution. His self-sanitising surface coating will help to address nosocomial infections, as well as mitigate contamination of food processing plants, and public transport surfaces. The Antimicrobial Coating Technology is now in its fifth year of development, with implications of preventing infection beyond COVID-19.

  • Adjunct Professor in Biomedical Engineering Professor David Rubin leads the Biomedical Engineering Research Group in the School of Electrical and Information Engineering at Wits. Prof Rubin and biomedical engineer and lecturer, Adam Pantanowitz are working on a model to show the effect of intermittent quarantines. It is currently very limited, but may have some benefit in terms of maintaining essential services and some continuity of economic activity. “At this stage, we’re only demonstrating the concept on standard viral epidemic models rather than a specific COVID-19 model,” cautioned Prof Rubin.