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Helen Rees: The Wits researcher championing SA’s fight against Covid-19

19 May 2020 1:23 PM

Helen Rees is the pioneer leading South Africa's division in the World Health Organisation's race to find a vaccine for Covid-19.

As humanity is faced with increasing global emergencies. Now more than ever, we must all Contribute to Solutions: For Good, and for the good of all people. In the Wits Impacts For Good podcast series, Eusebius McKaiser engages in conversation with Wits Originators, forward-thinking researchers from Wits University, interrogating problems and seeking robust and impactful solutions, backed by leading research.

Meet Helen Rees – the Wits professor leading the South African division of the Solidarity Trial that forms part of the international drug trial launched by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to accelerate the search for an effective vaccine for Covid-19 patients in hospital.

A global leader in medical science and research – Professor Helen Rees has championed the fight for the improvement of the nation’s health with a focus on HIV, sexual and reproductive health and, vaccine-preventable diseases.

In 1994, Rees established the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (RHI) to support the new democratic South Africa in shaping health policies around sexual and reproductive health.

The need for speed against the spread of a deadly virus

Now, as Covid-19 spreads across our continent, Rees and fellow Wits researcher, Jeremy Nel are leading the South African research team tasked with comparing the efficacy of a combination of four drug options by enrolling patients who have tested positive for the virus.

As a country with extensive experience with large-scale HIV and TB trials under its belt, South Africa is in a unique position to conduct the Solidarity Trial which aims to determine whether the potential drugs slow the progression of the virus or improves survival rates in patients.

The idea was to get a global study that would look at treatment of hospital patients to see if we can either shorten the disease, stop it progressing, and requiring ICU and stop deaths.

Helen Rees, Professor – University of the Witwatersrand

There are also other studies that WHO are coordinating that we’re also looking at. One is around having a major footprint around the world for vaccine trials and the other is to look at studies of drugs that would stop infection or stop mild disease progressing to more advanced disease – and all of those studies will be coming in South Africa.

Helen Rees, Professor – University of the Witwatersrand

Cognisant of the inconclusive small-scale studies done in China, WHO welcomed the addition of over 45 countries who are coming together to control the pandemic – a show of solidarity that will facilitate the rapid reduction of time spent on conducting trials which would ordinarily have taken years to complete.

Based on evidence from an independent group of experts, WHO have prioritised the following drugs for inclusion in the trial:

1. Remdesivir: previously tested during the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It has generated promising results in the treatment of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) caused by coronaviruses, suggesting that it may have some effect in patients with Covid-19.

2. Lopinavir/Ritonavir: used in the treatment of HIV patients. This trial aims to identify and confirm the benefits for COVID-19 patients, if any.

3. Interferon beta-1a: used to treat some cancers and autoimmune diseases.

4. Chloroquine and Hydroxychloroquine: used to treat malaria and rheumatology conditions. In China and France, small studies provided some indications of possible benefits of chloroquine phosphate against pneumonia caused by Covid-19, the trial seeks to confirm this.

Under the supervision of the WHO Global Data and Safety Monitoring Committee, results and treatment outcomes are monitored in real-time, allowing experts to remove ineffective drugs.

The world has really responded to the pandemic. We’ve never worked so hard… (doctors) around the globe have put everything else on hold in terms of their professional lives and are saying, this is now an absolute focus.

Helen Rees, Professor – University of the Witwatersrand

For more research with impact from Wits University or want to be among the 300 volunteers for the University’s Covid-19 rapid test study, visit for the latest updates.

19 May 2020 1:23 PM


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