Since its identification in Wuhan, China in late 2019, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has had a significant impact on society. The impact of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been broad, affecting the health of millions around the world, the economy, education and other spheres of society.
In late 2020, the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa (NGS-SA), led by the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP), identified a rapidly spreading new variant of SARS-CoV-2, termed 501Y.V2. In the short space of time from its identification, the 501Y.V2 variant has become the dominant SARS-CoV-2 variant circulating in the South African population. Currently, the 501Y.V2 variant accounts for more than 80% of viruses isolated from COVID-19 patients.
Amid the ongoing efforts to find a lasting solution to the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists from the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI) in Durban, led by Dr Alex Sigal, have successfully tested antibodies developed by Cape Town biotech company, Afrobodies, against the SARS-CoV-2 501Y.V2 variant.
Afrobodies is based at the BioCiTi Lab and incubator at the Woodstock Bandwidth Barn (part of the Cape Innovation & Technology Initiative “CiTi”), where multiple biotech companies test their innovative solutions.
Afrobodies Chief Scientific Officer, Dr Peter Durcan, said the company felt privileged that their antibodies were among the first in the world to undergo laboratory testing against the so-called ‘SA variant’.
“Our particular thanks go to Shi-Hsia Hwa who conducted the virus neutralisation tests. This variant was first identified in South Africa, thanks to the sophistication of our country’s genetic sequencing capacity. The toll the variant has taken on our population and economy has been significant. But it’s heartening to think that the tools to tackle it may also come from South African scientific excellence.”
The Chairperson of BioCiTi, Dr Aisha Pandor applauded the work done by Afrobodies in Africa.
“One of the success stories coming out of the South African science ecosystem amid a tough year, has been the amazing quality of our researchers.”
She added that South African scientists produced internationally relevant research and insights relating to the pandemic, with some examples being the group that first identified and sequenced the 501Y.V2 variant here in South Africa (the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa, or NGS-SA), to the UKZN based virologist (Dr Sandile Cele) who found a way to isolate and grow the new variant (in research which may prove relevant to the ability to grow other new variants in the lab), to the brilliant scientific leadership provided by Professor Salim Abdool Karim.
“More recently, BioCiti has been incredibly proud of the work done by Afrobodies in growing antibodies that are effective against the 501Y.V2 variant. Their excellent work is evidence of the ability of South African and African biotech companies to innovate, and to play a highly relevant role in an international research effort to curb the pandemic.”
She added that private biotech companies can play a crucial role in the healthcare sector, especially when working in collaboration with public institutions and donor-funded organisations.
“This has already been evidenced by the collaborations between private biotech companies and universities or larger listed public entities to develop the latest round of vaccines. Biotech companies can leverage their ability to move fast and innovate, with larger listed companies, universities, and public health entities’ ability to deliver innovation at scale, following appropriate health and safety protocols. We believe that even post the next year, these players working closely is key to allowing the health sector more broadly to benefit from biotech innovation.”
Further, Dr Aisha Pandor added that “as BioCiti and as South Africans, we are incredibly proud of what Afrobodies achieved in only a short amount of time, having started their work on Covid-19 antibodies in February 2020.
They are a great example of the broader biotech industry in SA and Africa, and we wish them further success as they develop and hopefully commercialise their innovations.”
BioCiTi lab manager Anesu Moyo echoed Dr Aisha Pandor’s sentiments and said he was excited beyond words to witness a groundbreaking innovation come out of the BioCiTi laboratory and from Africa.
Afrobodies antibodies represent hope in the fight against COVID-19. Not only has South Africa contributed to the world’s knowledge about the current pandemic by identifying the 501Y.V2 COVID-19 virus variant, it also mapped the emergence and spread of the 501Y.V2 variant, and contributed to the planning and commencement of vaccination trials against COVID-19. South African researchers such as Afrobodies are contributing through research and alternative therapeutics against COVID-19, to a global solution.”
BioCiTi is looking forward to offering the much-needed support i.e., infrastructural and financial, to other upcoming biotech innovators to bring their ideas from the ideation stage(s) to reproducible experiment, and ultimately a product.
Ian Merrington, the CEO of CiTi said “Our original vision and one of the primary reasons why we launched BioCiTi was to catalyse local biotech innovation, it’s fantastic to see the groundbreaking laboratory innovation emanating from this facility in such a short period of time! We would like to thank SEDA for their foresight and financial support. We could not have launched this successful CiTi initiative in Biotechnology without SEDA’s support, so it’s extremely gratifying to see small enterprises thrive in this important sector”