Healthy health research environment in South Africa


Healthy health research environment in South Africa

South African health research excellence re-emerged to the global map latest during the COVID19 pandemic. Almost every day professors Shabir Madhi or ‘Mr. Omicron’ Professor Túlio de Oliveira appeared in international news explaining and analyzing the developments of the pandemic. They renewed South Africa’s well-known reputation created by Christian Barnard who performed the world’s first ever heart transplant in 1960s.

And let’s not forget the professional ladies like Professor Helen Rees that led the world’s first vaccine trials already in 2020. She is also the chairperson of the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority SAHPRA – whose two executives are both women Dr Boitumela Semete-Makokotlela and Portia Nkambule. SAHPRA is a good example of well-maintained institutions in the country alongside a chain of many health research institutions and universities devoted to modern health know-how combined with latest technology. 

Hugely diverse population and multifaceted societal challenges of South Africa have become a blessing in disguise from the point of view of health research and studies. Together with another genetically rich country Brazil, it offered the best environment for the first vaccine trials and high-quality analysis of development of the Covid-19 virus, its variants and their behaviour in the population. At the height of virus and shortage of vaccines, several European countries such as France and Germany in partnership with global pharmaceutical giant Aspen, U.S.-based biotechnology firm, the government and South African universities set up a first African vaccine production plant in Gqeberha Eastern Cape. The Biovac Institute in Cape Town operates another vaccine production plant in South Africa in a partnership with Pfizer-BioNTech. South Africa also championed the fight against pandemic together with Addis Ababa based Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention directed by John Nkengasong, an institute that is respected globally. 

Decades long tradition on study of viruses and communicable diseases

The knowledge of pandemics, epidemics and communicable diseases did not start in South Africa from the scratch. Another epidemic that hit South Africa and the whole continent hard was HIV-AIDS virus in the 1990s. National and continental health catastrophe led to rapid development of studies of the virus, its treatment and prevention. Thanks to these studies and research, today HIV is no more a life-threatening condition and several preventative medicine was developed in South Africa newest of which is a vaccine. 

South African universities attract youth from all over the world to study and research medicine and health, and institutions are globally well-funded.  Since 2014, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief PEPFAR has been a constant supporter of both treatment and research of HIV. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is another solid source of funds, and the European Union does not come far behind. South Africa as EU’s strategic partner hosts the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP) located in Cape Town. It has established itself as the focal point of cooperation between the EU and sub-Saharan Africa in research on the control of infectious diseases and the development of new intervention. There are 43 partners and a budget of 1,6 billion Euros in the third phase of EDCTP3, which aims to strengthen and build research capacities in sub-Saharan Africa. Research of tuberculosis and malaria are also high quality in South Africa, and just received a boost of funding from the EU Global Gateway Forum. Furthermore, the University of Witwatersrand recently launched a new trial on tuberculosis vaccine funded by Bill and Melinda Gates. Furthermore, South Africa has also some of world’s best trauma surgeons – unfortunately - as the country has so much crime and accidents. Many European medical companies send their experts to train in the country to learn specialist surgery. 

Health studies are popular subjects to study and best universities offer medical and health degrees. It is one of the most difficult disciplines to enrol, as the competition is harsh. There is lack of medical professionals in South Africa, and doctors often establish private practices as conditions and resources in the public sector are not favourable. There are two overlapping health sectors in South Africa, public and private, but government is planning a reform that would merge the two under the National Health Insurance NHI. The plan is heavily criticized by medical professionals because of its unrealistic funding prospects. At the same time, despite excellent research and professional services, the health situation and access to health services of South Africans is becoming more unequal due to very different economic and social circumstances between population groups. 

New diseases, new challenges, call for cooperation

South Africa is one of the countries where obesity and related diseases such as high blood pressure, heart diseases and diabetes are on rapid rise. Only recently in 2022 the South African government launched a South African National Strategic Plan for the Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) for the period 2022-2027. The study of these diseases is expected to increase in universities and research centres. Mental health and wellbeing is another area where more attention is needed, especially among the young people. 

Finnish universities have a tradition of collaboration on health and medical studies. Recently, via TFK funding, the University of Tampere started collaboration with the University of Johannesburg in health and social policy for children and youth. Novia is also in partnership with Universities of Venda and Zambia developing midwifery education, as well as TAMK with North West University in a project including sexual and reproductive health and rights. In the whole Southern African region, there are many collaboration with health education and research in the focus. A good example is a long-standing partnership with the Institute of Health Education in Mozambique and Savonia, which has been funded by TFK and ERASMUS+ since 2005. 

Dear readers, remember TFK partnership call for funding is open until 2nd May. Why not join South Africa to develop further world renowed health studies and research to learn from the best. 

Team Finland Knowledge expert Iina Soiri, Pretoria

Photo: SAFINET university pilot held a panel at South African Science Forum 2023. Pictured here Mikko Perkiö and Mika Kautonen TUNI, Sadiyya Haffejee UJ, Olli Vainio, UTU, Taina Tukiainen from UWasa and Lavern Samuels from SANORD. Photo taken by Iina Soiri