The death of Professor Gita Ramjee, who was diagnosed with Covid-19 before she died, is a huge blow to the healthcare sector, says Deputy President David Mabuza.
In his capacity has the chairperson of the SA National Aids Council, he conveyed his condolences to Ramjee's family and friends as well as the medical research community.
"The passing of Professor Ramjee comes as a huge blow to the entirety of the healthcare sector and the global fight against HIV/Aids," Mabuza said in a statement of condolences.
"In her, we have indeed lost a champion in the fight against the HIV epidemic, ironically at the hands of this global pandemic.
"In her honour, we should heed the call to flatten the curve by strengthening our responses to this global pandemic as well as continue the fight to achieve zero new HIV infections."
Ramjee spent her life working on understanding and preventing HIV. She was the chief specialist scientist at The Aurum Institute and director of the South African Medical Research Council's HIV Prevention Research Unit.
She had apparently contracted the virus while visiting family in the UK recently.
Mabuza appealed to people to adhere to lockdown rules and to only go out for essential supplies or essential work.
"May her soul rest in peace," said Mabuza.
The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) said Ramjee led ground-breaking work in HIV prevention.
"We express our heartfelt condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Professor Ramjee, who passed away in hospital because of health complications related to COVID-19. She recently returned from the United Kingdom," a statement of condolence and tribute said.
Ramjee joined the SAMRC in 1996 and under her leadership at the SAMRC her KwaZulu-Natal based team hosts five of 20 HIV Vaccine Trial Network sites across the country as a part of a global scientific journey to find an effective HIV vaccine.
The team is also testing a novel long-acting injectable for the prevention of HIV in three communities across the greater Durban area.
"We are still in mourning; Gita was fundamental and inextricably linked to the endeavours to find solutions to prevent HIV in women. She was tireless in this pursuit, her tenacity will never be forgotten," said Prof Glenda Gray SAMRC President and CEO.
"I have tremendous respect for her contributions and passion to find solutions for HIV prevention in South Africa, we have worked so hard towards this and are saddened to have lost someone so soon on this journey, my thoughts go out to her family and friends."
Ramjee was described as a "true trailblazer" who contributed substantially to HIV prevention research work in women globally and in South Africa among communities in the greater Durban region.
She held Honorary professorships at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of Washington in Seattle and University of Cape Town.
She specialised in integrated HIV prevention and treatment research and care programmes focusing on women in KwaZulu-Natal.
Her awards included "Outstanding Female Scientist" Award by the European Development Clinical Trials Partnerships in Lisbon, Portugal, alongside other global academic giants.
It was in recognition of her life's work and dedication to finding new HIV prevention methods, which are conducive to the lifestyles and circumstances of women in South Africa.
She received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the International Microbicide Conference in Sydney, Australia in 2012 and the SAMRC Scientific Merit Award 2017 Gold Medal.
"A pioneer in the field of HIV prevention among high risk populations, Professor Ramjee's passing is a tragic loss. Her devotion and contribution in the field is known globally," said Professor Nana Poku, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in the statement.
Ramjee was a University of KwaZulu-Natal alumnus and a National Institutes of Health- funded Clinical Trials Unit Principal Investigator with a vast portfolio of phase I and II HIV prevention treatment clinical trials experience.
She led the HIV Pathogens Research Unit's mission in uncovering the factors contributing to HIV infection vulnerability through extensive collaborations and prolific grant income generation of over R1bn in her tenure at the SAMRC.
"On behalf of the SAMRC, we are saddened by the tragic loss of a well-respected scientist and esteemed colleague," her colleagues said. "May her soul rest in peace and may her loved ones find healing during this difficult time."