The Higher Education, Science and Innovation Ministry on Monday announced that it has invested R68 766 000 towards coronavirus (Covid-19) research and development.
Addressing the media, Minister Dr Blade Nzimande said the funds were approved to support Covid-19 research and development in diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines, surveillance and epidemiology, including genomic epidemiology.
He said the demand for an effective national Covid-19 vaccination plan and the threat of future pandemics, had thrust the country's ability to locally develop and manufacture vaccines into the spotlight.
Government, through the Department of Science and Innovation, owns a 47.5% stake in Biovac, a bio-pharmaceutical company, which is a joint venture with the private sector.
“Last year I launched an initiative which sees Biovac manufacturing Hexaxim in partnership with Sanofi. Hexaxim is the world's first fully liquid hexavalent (6-in-1) vaccine and protects against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis B, Haemophilus influenzae type B, and poliomyelitis, explained Nzimande.
He reiterated that there were two studies currently being supported in the area of Covid-19 vaccines.
The first is a study on plant-based manufacturing of antibodies for Covid-19, which aims to facilitate the rapid development of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines and therapeutic antibodies.
The second study looks at diagnostic reagents using various expression platforms for advancing the production of SARS-CoV-2 vaccine candidates and reagents.
The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research has entered into an agreement with Kentucky Biological Products (KBP) for the potential manufacturing of the antigen of their vaccine, which uses specific tobacco plants.
Nzimande went on to dismiss the myth that Covid-19 was connected to 5G technology and encouraged South Africans to rely on scientific information.
“I also wish to take this opportunity to reaffirm that all vaccines that government intends securing are scientifically tested and approved by competent relevant authorities. We urge our people to desist from believing in untruths, like that 5G mobile systems cause Covid 19,” he stated.
He also promised that in the next few weeks his department would host presentations with scientists to explain why the vaccine was important in fighting the virus.
On Covid-19 variants, the Minister said his department had allocated R25-million over the next 12 months to complete the sequencing of 10 000 SARS-CoV-2 genomes in South Africa and the rest of the African continent.
His department is also expecting more information later this week, to help it determine whether to open universities or keep them closed.
Nzimande said the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) recorded over 750 000 applications for the 2021 academic year, which was a significant increase of about 185 000 applications from 2020 applications.
Over 460 000 of the applicants are South African Social Security Agency beneficiaries.
The vast majority of applicants were able to apply online, with smaller numbers of students using the National Youth Development Agency offices to apply.
The evaluation of the applications began in December and is well underway. It is expected to be completed in mid-February.
He stressed that university applicants were given a specific time to accept a space, before it is offered to another student.
NSFAS is also engaging with individual institutions to assess laptop requirements, to ensure compatibility with the relevant qualifications.
“It is important to note that university students will use their learning materials allowance to buy the laptops, which they will own and will be used for the duration of their studies. Each institution will develop a policy through which this will be implemented in line with NSFAS guidelines,” Nzimande explained.
NSFAS aims to complete these processes over the next few weeks and will communicate specific dates to the relevant institutions.
On the issue of mobile data, the Post School Education and Training System (PSET), in collaboration with the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies, will soon resume negotiations with mobile network operators for a long-term solution to the provision of data for students within the PSET system.
Nzimande said his department intended to ensure that no student was left behind during the pandemic and to also find a sustainable, long-term strategy to ensure that the PSET sector did not revert to pre-Covid status in relation to access to online resources by students and lecturers.
The department will also ensure the zero-rating of educational websites.
“I commend all the academic staff and management teams of universities who put in additional efforts to support the necessary changes to the academic year. I also commend the many students in the system who have pushed hard to complete their studies, sometimes in very difficult conditions,” Nzimande said.