First Covid-19 vaccine trial in South Africa includes HIV patients as drugmaker Aspen promises drug supplies

South African drug company Aspen said it could provide 10 million dexamethasone tablets within a month. PHOTO: REUTERS

JOHANNESBURG (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - South Africa will begin a coronavirus vaccine trial on Wednesday, the first such test on the continent, with its 2,000 volunteers planned to include some living with HIV.

The trial will begin at three sites in the country's most populated province, Gauteng, and include 50 volunteers who have HIV, said study leader Shabir Madhi, a professor of vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand, in a briefing with reporters.

The vaccine, developed by the University of Oxford in partnership with AstraZeneca Plc, is already undergoing human tests in the UK with separate studies slated to begin in Brazil and the US.

Along with one of the fastest-growing coronavirus epidemics, South Africa has the world's largest HIV-infected population with about 7 million patients.

HIV attacks the human immune system, and the test will help ensure that the country has access to shots that will be safe and appropriate for South Africans, said Helen Rees, chair of the Health Products Regulatory Authority.

"We really need to have a vaccine that's tried and tested throughout the world, in all populations," she said in the briefing.

Participation in trials also smooths the way to vaccine access, because of the country's investment in making sure it works, she said.

South African drug company Aspen said it could provide 10 million dexamethasone tablets within a month.

Results from a trial showed that dexamethasone reduced death rates by about a third compared with a placebo in severely ill hospitalised Covid-19 patients, University of Oxford scientists said last week, calling the discovery a major breakthrough.

"Aspen has looked at the short-term needs and can provide 10 million tablets in the next three to four weeks. We would look to ramp up further should there be a need for additional product," chief executive Stephen Saad told Reuters on Tuesday (June 23).

He did not indicate the current production volumes.

Aspen - South Africa's biggest supplier of drugs with a 22 per cent market share in sub-Saharan Africa - manufactures both the injectable and tablet forms of dexamethasone, which is mainly used for treatment of tumours, asthma and other respiratory ailments.

The South African government has contacted Aspen to source the drug not only for its domestic market but also for rest of the continent, the company said on Monday.

The company has asked the government to indicate required volumes across the continent, Mr Saad said. "Once they give us a sense, we can work out the supply," he added.

Coronavirus cases have surged to more than 100,000 with almost 2,000 deaths, while South Africa's lockdown was eased on June 1.

The government counts at least 29 hot spots throughout the nation, which had about a third of Africa's confirmed coronavirus cases and almost a quarter of the continent's deaths as of June 17.

South Africa's health ministry on Friday said that the government had a stock of 300,000 ampoules of dexamethasone and could secure supplies from local suppliers.

Mr Saad said the recent revelation by scientists at the University of Oxford had brought in sudden demand for the drug and the company had received orders from the World Health Organization, UNICEF and other bodies.

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