A local supply of reagents and kits for COVID-19 testing is being developed to ensure security of supply, local manufacturing, and the creation and preservation of jobs.
Addressing a virtual National COVID-19 Conference on Friday, Higher Education, Science and Innovation (DSI) Minister, Dr Blade Nzimande, said the supply of reagents and kits for COVID-19 testing is being developed through DSI-funded spin-out companies, centres of excellence and various other programmes and initiatives.
Nzimande said South Africa currently imports testing kits, and local manufacturing will boost supplies for the continent.
"This work is at the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) accreditation stage and, in some cases, approval has already been granted. Some of the products were ready for use in May 2020," Nzimande said.
The initiative in bio-manufacturing, which involves molecular biology enzymes, reagents and testing kits, is among the six specific initiatives that the department have been mobilising across the National System of Innovation, especially among its entities and the entities of sister departments, which are currently being fast-tracked to support government's response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Another initiative includes the deployment of DSI-funded infrastructure to expand testing for COVID-19.
Nzimande said the department has funded technology platforms, and laboratories possess capabilities and have conducted the preparatory work necessary to become part of the national testing network.
The Centre for Proteomic and Genomic Research has validated various testing protocols and undertaken risk assessments, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. It will install a laboratory information management system, as required by the National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS). Testing started in April 2020.
The KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP), in partnership with Centre of AIDS Programme for Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) and the Africa Health Research Institute, have validated the quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) and sequencing protocols from two manufacturers for COVID-19 testing.
Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) labs were repurposed to do testing in support of government's drive for a massive roll-out of testing.
Development of Personal Protective Equipment
Nzimande reported that the Product Development Technology Station at the Central University of Technology has been developing personal protective equipment (PPE), specifically an airway protection device for healthcare workers.
The Minister said that the technology station has applied to South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) for an amended licence to accommodate the new products under its existing ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation) 13485 certification supported through the Technology Innovation Agency. The work will continue post-COVID-19.
"The eNtsa innovation hub at Nelson Mandela University is using additive manufacturing (3D printing) for face shield frame design and printing modifications to enable clinicians to easily replace standard A4 transparent sheets without the need for holes and adhesives. The designs are now available through open source networks.
"eNtsa also positioned itself to provide engineering support in the Eastern Cape and around the country during the lockdown, so as to enable critical projects pertaining to maintenance for the power generation industry to continue," Nzimande said.
Support to good hygiene practice
Nzimande said the Technology Station in Chemicals has started with the production of the first batch of 5 000 containers of hand sanitiser to be distributed to staff and placed at strategic points on campuses for students and on-campus communities to stay safe.
He said the production of hand sanitisers will be an ongoing project until the crisis is over, with the technology station also investigating ways to assist vulnerable communities including old age homes.
Coordinating efforts for local vaccine manufacturing plant
The Minister said that the department has put together a COVID-19 Vaccine Production Task Team, which includes the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (DTIC), the South African Medical Research Council, academia, local vaccine and adjuvant manufacturers Biovac (which is 47.5% government-owned) and Afrigen, which has Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) investment.
"The aim is to get South Africa into a state of readiness to manufacture an approved COVID-19 vaccine locally. In anticipation of the huge demand, should a candidate vaccine be identified, manufacturing facilities will need to be established in different regions, and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Africa will also need to be ready," Nzimande said.
Support for National Ventilator Project
Nzimande said the National Ventilator Project (NVP) was conceptualised by the DTIC in conjunction with the Manufacturing Circle in order to coordinate and secure a supply of locally manufactured ventilators.
He said the systems engineering skills and experience in specifying and acquiring complex systems at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) was critical in ensuring that a national user requirement and technical specification was developed for publication in the request for proposals for the NVP.
"The NVP team received approximately 100 proposals. Four potential suppliers were selected, and production orders were placed with them for an initial batch of 20 000 ventilators. One of the selected suppliers was the CSIR, which was contracted to manufacture 2 000 non-invasive ventilators," the Minister said.