Covid-19 met its match in the Wits edge 

From manufacturing PPE to setting up vaccine trials, teams of Witsies were up to the task of fighting the global pandemic.

While nearly the whole country was in lockdown in 2020, with people too scared to even step outside for a morning jog, Wits professors, doctors, researchers and students came together to fight the virus that had the whole world at a standstill. Backed by the university, these Witsies contributed in manufacturing much-needed personal protective equipment (PPE), setting up the first site in South Africa for vaccine trials, launching a dashboard to track the virus, and developing treatment plans for those infected with covid.  

With cases spreading across the country, Professor Bruce Mellado of the Wits school of physics, and a number of volunteers from different disciplines, launched the Covid-19 South African Dashboard in March 2020. This dashboard not only helped track and visualise the ever-changing virus throughout Africa but could predict its spread and severity. “The website at its peak was used by many health care professionals, government officials, companies […] The site used to get about 10 000 hits daily,” said Mellado. 

A shortage of PPE was one of the biggest issues during the first covid wave. This forced those working in hospitals, clinics and emergency services to wash and reuse equipment, when typically they would have discarded it. Cue Dr Randall Paton, senior lecturer at the Wits school of mechanical, industrial and aeronautical engineering.  

In April 2020 Paton and his team, which included staff and students from the faculties of engineering and health sciences, occupational health and safety unit and the campus health and wellness centre, started producing laser-made face shields for hospital and emergency service staff by the tens of thousands, for distribution across the country.  

Calling this project one of the “most human moments” he had ever experienced, Paton said, “It was meaningful to be a part of a project that included so many people. Everyone did what they could to make the inflexible flexible.” A Wits Vuvuzela article about this project, reported that over R100 000 was raised to make this initiative possible. 

One of the biggest contributions made by Wits in fighting the pandemic was when Professor Jeremy Nel, a lecturer in internal medicine, and Professor Helen Rees, executive director of the Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, teamed up with the World Health Organisation to form the South African branch of the Solidarity trials, the only one in Africa. The trial assessed a range of drugs being used to treat patients with covid. Nel said that “The Solidarity trial was very well received and has added some very important information on therapeutics worldwide.”  

This collaboration resulted in findings about the most effective use of Remdesivir, which continues to be a very popular antiviral drug to treat covid. “The trial also helped provide definitive evidence against early candidates like Chloroquine, which allowed us to move on to more promising candidates,” said Nel.  

The university’s ground-breaking contributions continued with the first vaccine trials in South Africa which were led by vaccinologist, Professor Shabir Madhi. By August 2020 Wits had two vaccine trials underway, the Oxford trial for AstraZeneca and the Novavax trial. 

An honourable mention must be given to the Wits community of doctors and medical students, who were going through their clinical training at the height of the pandemic. As reported in Wits Vuvuzela, healthcare workers stationed at Charlette Maxeke and Chris Hani Baragwanath hospitals battled wave after wave of covid, putting their own lives at risk, to save lives.  

Superman and Spiderman have nothing on the edge that inspired these brilliant Witsies. They gave their time, resources, and specialties to help tackle one of the deadliest pandemics. They have indeed helped set the tone for what Wits is cable of in the next 100 years.   

FEATURED IMAGE: Witsies came out on top in the fight against covid-19. Photo: File