South Africa a key partner to US in public health matters

Cape Times | October 4,  2021 | Will Stevens, U.S. Acting Consul-General in Cape Town

DURING my time in Cape Town, I have been constantly amazed by the local expertise, dedicated health-care professionals and researchers, facilities, and health products that underscore why the US has long seen South Africa as a key public health partner.

Our co-operation in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic and altering the trajectory of HIV/Aids in this country are a testament to that partnership.

For decades, the US government has partnered with the South African government to strengthen the country’s health-care system; provide HIV/Aids testing, treatment, and care for millions of South Africans; and collaborate with local institutions on world-leading medical research – much of it in the three Cape provinces.

These programmes build capacity, create economic opportunities, and, ultimately, enable South Africans to lead healthier, more productive lives.

Our strong relationship with the South African government, provincial and municipal health officials, researchers, non-profit organisations, and health-care practitioners enabled us to quickly respond to the Covid19 pandemic. From the early days of the pandemic we provided critically needed equipment such as oxygen therapy units and personal protective equipment, deployed our Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologists to support provincial health departments, and mobilised US-supported health-care workers to screen for Covid-19.

As the epidemic has evolved, we have responded to the South African government’s call and donated nearly 8 million vaccine doses, produced by Pfizer, a US company, to the nationwide vaccine effort.

Our long-standing partnership with South Africa in biomedical research has helped save countless lives around the world. This exciting joint research is exploring possible new vaccines for tuberculosis, HIV/Aids, and other deadly diseases.

When it came time to protecting nearly 500 000 of South Africa’s health-care workers from Covid-19 in February 2020, we were able to leverage these research relationships to enable the partnership between the US government and another US company, Johnson & Johnson, the SA Medical Research Council and Desmond Tutu Health Foundation to lead the Sisonke and another trial.

This incredible feat was only possible due to the more than 30 years of biomedical research and co-operation between the US and South Africa.

Further trials of vaccine candidates developed by US companies, like ImmunityBio, are already in development. Our long-standing health collaboration and support make the US a natural partner and ally for South Africa’s vision to set up the first Covid19 mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub on the continent, which President Ramaphosa announced in June.

This effort will be led by the World Health Organization, Covax partners, like the US and a consortium of South African companies, universities, and research centres, many of which are based in the Western Cape.

In fact, the US government and US private sector already collaborate with the members of this consortium.

Pfizer, which has worked with the Biovac Institute on production of another vaccine, has an agreement with Biovac to begin producing its Covid-19 vaccine in 2022.

Since 2003, the US HIV/Aids assistance programme, commonly known by the acronym, “Pepfar,” has invested R107 billion to save and improve millions of lives and prevent millions of HIV infections. We have contributed another R1.1 bn already to protect South Africans from Covid-19 and help care for those who are ill.

Leveraging that relationship to co-operate on a robust response to the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates that the US continues in this role. And, with our ongoing co-operation and opportunities to further support South Africa’s health sector and biotechnology research, I am confident that the US will remain South Africa’s leading health partner in the years to come.