South Africa’s high tech response to Covid-19 epidemic

SOUTH AFRICA is leading the way in charting a high tech response to the pandemic. Several hospitals, including private and public facilities are utilising robots to limit exposure and infection control. A two-wheeled robot named Quinton is helping to reduce the time doctors are physically present with infected patients at Tygerberg Hospital, while Netcare has deployed germ-eradicating robots to fight infection.

Netcare Group’s chief executive officer, Dr Richard Friedland says “Both the Xenex pulsed ultraviolet (UV) robots and Yanex Pulsed-Xenon UV robots deployed in Netcare hospitals use high doses of UV light to destroy viruses, bacteria and fungal spores and disinfect hospital wards, theatres and other spaces within minutes”.

Meanwhile Prof Salim Karim outlined this morning, how his team intends to tackle the local epidemic using ‘big data’ by deploying the CSIR National Ops Centre initially created for the soccer world cup. His team is busy gathering data by geolocating tests via cellphones and identifying hotspots inside the country.

A strategy of containment has also been rolled out. Prof Karim is in the process of ‘identifying weak links in the national containment strategy’. He says the country is not just slowing the outbreak but ‘is learning from how the virus spreads’. Is concerned about potential for spread within Prisons, Mines, Hospitals, and is talking about ‘control, enforcement and more aggressive steps’.

The use of technology is proving to be a game-changer.

Local biotech company, Cape Bio Pharm is introducing spike proteins into plants, to produce “a cheaper, locally produced test kit” which would “separate the seasonal flu sufferer from a person infected with COVID-19, thereby alleviating the strain on our healthcare system”

The Health Dept recently ramped up testing by utilising a GeneXpert TB test machine repurposed for Covid-19 that will massively increase capacity.

Two entrepreneurs from CSIR have developed a lab PCR test which takes just 60 minutes.

Stellenbosch University and AzarGen Biotechnologies (Pty) Ltd, a South African biotechnology company have focused on developing ‘human therapeutic proteins’ using advanced genetic engineering and synthetic biology techniques in plants, and have joined forces in the global fight against the coronavirus.

A branded synthetic pharmaceutical, previously used for the treatment of neonatal Respiratory Distress Syndrome (nRDS), a condition where some premature babies struggle to breathe due to collapsed lung sacs, as well as treatment for acute lung injury in adults, is being tested as a supportive agent for the treatment of ARDS, the condition associated with COVID-19.

South Africa’s local biotech industry is already quite advanced, and the country has a history of medical world firsts, including the first ever heart transplant at Groote Schuur hospital.

Telemedicine is moving in leaps and bounds, but still needs a way to go within the public health sector.l

A syndromic response may be required as we move into Winter flu season. Various companies around the world have outlined the means by which multiple tests for a variety of respiratory illnesses may be combined in theory into one single test.

While SAA may have been grounded for good, Ethiopian Airlines arrived with medical supplies from China, and also tests and equipment donated by Jack Ma.

Emirates Airlines has started implementing rapid testing for passengers demonstrating the type of technology being appraised by Senegal’s Louis Pasteur Institute.

Biodx, a proudly South African company,  is developing ‘cutting edge antimicrobial and antiviral technologies’ with technical support from the CSIR. However UV Led Light may turn out to be a better option, as demonstrated by a 30-Second Coronavirus Kill.

South Africa’s first successful genome sequencing of a locally collected sample of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been added to an international database to help better understand the disease. KwaZulu Natal’s Research, Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) and the Big Data Flagship Programme of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) has a multi-disciplinary team of world-renowned experts which mainly focuses on analysis and control of viral outbreaks and genomic analysis.

SA’s 3D-printing community is making life-saving protective gear from home and the University of Johannesburg is deploying its printers in the fight against Covid-19.

The United States Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will provide technical assistance to South Africa’s National Department of Health (NDoH) and National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) in addition to 50 million rand to the countries epidemic response.

Concerns about the use of tech during the crisis taking the surveillance state to a new level have been expressed. In 2013 South Africa passed a law protecting personal data, The Personal Information Protection Act.