Wednesday, January 26

Inside the virology laboratories of SA – Moneyweb


As the port city of Durban nears South Africa’s annual summer vacation season, scientists in a virology lab at the Africa Health Research Institute are working around the clock. He urged efforts to isolate the virus and test its ability to evade the vaccines the world is pinning its hopes on to end a two-year pandemic.

Covid-19 Research at the Africa Health Research Institute
Alex Sigal, virologist, in a laboratory at the African Institute for Health Research (AHRI) in Durban, South Africa, on Wednesday, December 15, 2021. South Africa’s hospital admissions rate as a percentage of newly identified Covid-19 cases is decreased dramatically in the second week of the current omicron-driven infection wave, compared to the same week of the third wave.

The objective is to find out “what happened? How does it happen? What can we do to decrease it? “Said Alex Sigal, 51, who heads the lab that was the first to isolate the beta variant, the Covid-19 strain that has been most successful in outperforming vaccines. “So we thought of a way to quickly adjust our responses,” he said.

South African laboratories have been instrumental in fighting the coronavirus. They identified two of the five so-called variants of interest and trained scientists from across the continent on how to sequence genes to detect and track variants.

Sigal’s lab was the first to test omicron against blood plasma from people who had received two doses of the injection produced by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE. He also updated an article that hypothesizes that variants can develop in immunosuppressed people who cannot easily shed the virus, allowing it to mutate.

For many circles outside of medical science, the role that South African scientists have played in fighting the pandemic has come as a surprise. But with an HIV epidemic, the world’s largest, approaching its fourth decade and hundreds of thousands of people infected with tuberculosis, South Africa has been a magnet for scientists around the world tracking down the pathogens that kill us.

The country has established a network of seven genomic surveillance laboratories, one at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases and six at academic institutions.

Covid-19 Research at the Africa Health Research Institute
Technicians in full-body protective suits work inside a Covid-19 level 3 biosafety research laboratory at the African Institute for Health Research (AHRI) in Durban, South Africa, on Wednesday, December 15, 2021. Admission rate South African Hospitals as Percentage of New Identified Covid-19 cases dropped dramatically in the second week of the current omicron-driven infection wave, compared to the same week of the third wave.

Sigal is Israeli-Canadian and a few floors below his laboratory in an eight-story glass and brick building is Krisp, a gene-sequencing laboratory whose Brazilian director, Tulio de Oliveira, announced the discovery of omicron to the world.

“There is a lot of technical capacity in South Africa to do genomic sequencing of pathogens because we have accumulated that experience over many years for HIV and tuberculosis,” said Richard Lessells, Scottish infectious disease specialist at Krisp. “From very early in the pandemic, we recognized that genomic sequencing and genomic surveillance were going to be very important.”

Local talent

With the appearance of omicron that has meant sleepless nights for many of the scientists.

“I have been working to prepare the efficacy study of the Pfizer vaccine,” said Sigal, who is encouraged when he watches a sequential video of the omicron variant attacking cells. “I worked the whole night”.

Sigal’s lab has made another important contribution to the country’s ability to monitor changes in the pandemic. When Covid hit, getting supplies across borders became tricky.

Covid-19 Research at the Africa Health Research Institute
A technician uses a multichannel pipette dropper to dispense material during the COVID-19 antibody neutralization test at an African Institute for Health Research (AHRI) laboratory in Durban, South Africa, on Wednesday, December 15, 2021. Admission rate South African hospital hospitals as a percentage of newly identified Covid-19 cases dropped sharply in the second week of the current omicron-driven infection wave, compared to the same week of the third wave.

Scientists quickly realized that they could not obtain cells to grow the virus, so they made their own line from human lung cells that had first been engineered by Sigal while completing his doctorate. This cell line, known as H1299-ACE2, is now widely used in South Africa in various Covid-19 tests, including omicron.

Omicron came to South Africa first and so far there is a lot to worry about. The variant appears to be much more transmissible than previous variants and daily cases hit a record this week. Still, hospitalizations and deaths, so far, are substantially lower than in previous waves.

While foreign scientists have come to South Africa to tackle the diseases plaguing a country that spans the first and third worlds, the local talent is robust and developing rapidly.

Sandile Cele, a 33-year-old from a small town near Durban, is part of a team of seven Sigal scientists who grow cells, centrifuge plasma and wash test plates. In total, the Africa Health Research Institute, founded in 2016, has 550 students, staff and scientists.

TB, HIV

It was quite challenging to suddenly switch from TB and HIV to coronaviruses, said Cele, who, like most of the team, graduated from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, about two miles from where she works.

Covid-19 Research at the Africa Health Research Institute
Sandile Cele, laboratory supervisor at the African Institute for Health Research (AHRI) in Durban, South Africa, on Wednesday, December 15, 2021. South Africa’s hospital admissions rate as a percentage of newly identified Covid-19 cases is decreased dramatically in the second week of the current omicron-driven infection wave, compared to the same week of the third wave.

“But now, with the emergence of new variants, there is pressure,” Cele said. “Especially for omicron, we are expected to provide answers. Everyone has been looking in our direction. “

While Sigal and his team are now focused on omicron, their goal is to help end the pandemic by getting ahead of a rapidly mutating virus – a task that will not be easy.

We need to start by “understanding how these variants evolve and doing more surveillance,” he said.

© 2021 Bloomberg


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