01 July 2022 | Story André Damons | Photo André Damons
Prof Motlalepula Matsabisa
Prof Motlalepula Matsabisa, from the Department of Pharmacology at the University of the Free State, explains to the delegation how some of the machinery and equipment in his laboratory work.

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO Afro) Regional Expert Advisory Committee on Traditional Medicines for COVID-19 Response (REACT), Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP), the African Union Commission (AU) joint mission to South Africa have found that the University of the Free State (UFS) has the appropriate laboratories, specialised facilities and capacity to conduct multidisciplinary research, train human resources as well as the ability to attract funding for research on traditional medicine. 

The mission concluded its visit to the country on Friday 24 June by presenting a preliminary report to the departments of Health and Higher Education and Training (DHET). Besides visiting the two national departments and the UFS, the delegation also visited the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA), WHO Country Office, Pharma-Ethics, Manufacturing Industry and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). They also visited the three clinical trials sites in Vereeniging, Kimberley and Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth). 

Congratulations to UFS and Department of Clinical Pharmacology for PHELA study
The delegation visited the UFS (on Friday 17 June) as it is one of two institutions on the continent conducting multicentered clinical trials on traditional African medicine – PHELA – to be tested in a Phase II clinical trial on COVID-19 patients.

Prof Ossy MJ Kasilo, regional advisor for traditional medicine at the WHO regional office for Africa, who led the mission, congratulated the UFS and the Department of Clinical Pharmacology for putting together the study for PHELA.
According to her, South Africa is one of just two countries they visited conducting multicentered clinical trials on traditional African medicine for COVID-19. “This study is very important to us and on behalf of the WHO Africa, AFRICA CDC, EDCTP and the AU Commission, we would like to congratulate you on this study,” said Prof Kasilo. 
Presenting the preliminary report to the Departments of Health and DHET, Prof Kasilo said they found that the UFS has the appropriate laboratories, research equipment, specialised facilities and capacity to conduct multidisciplinary research, for human capital development, as well as the ability to attract funding. 

“The university also has strong institutional and government support, the existence of an institutional ethics committee and a strong relationship with the industry. There is also strong evidence of collaboration between departments at the UFS; these include Pharmacology, Chemistry, Microbiology and Virology as well as the external research collaboration that includes the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), University of Pretoria, Agricultural research council (UP) and others. 

“The UFS has strong involvement and relationships with communities and the Krwakrwa outreach in the Eastern Cape is an example of university-community partnership. The university together with the Krwakrwa community also has the facility for processing raw materials for herbal medicines, land for pilot medicinal plant cultivation and for later expansion. There are greenhouses for plant nurseries and this project is close to the source of raw materials for traditional medicines being scientifically researched and developed. The community has been trained in a number of skills relevant to them, such as good agricultural cultivation practice (GACP) project management, plant raw material quality processing and capacity building for the Project Team in relevant soft skills relating to management of processing raw materials and facilities,” said Prof Kasilo. 

The objectives of the mission
During their visit to the UFS, Prof Kasilo said with the COVID-19 pandemic a number of African countries had proposed some traditional medicine as therapeutics for COVID-19 treatment. However, these were not backed up by scientific evidence for the safety, efficacy and quality. Therefore the WHO, in collaboration with Africa CDC, African Union Commission and the EDCTP put together protocols for conducting clinical trials on traditional medicine-based therapeutics. 

“The objective of the mission is to review progress the country is making in developing traditional medicine-based therapeutics, in this particular case, PHELA. To identify areas for strengthening country capacity with the view to developing a plan of action with WHO technical support and to monitor the level of implementation of the WHO recommendations regarding the conduct of clinical trials, specifically good clinical practice,” said Prof Kasilo. 

Overview of the UFS 
Prof Motlalepula Matsabisa , who is also the chairperson of REACT, said the mission is here to ascertain the best practices, to identify the possible skills, research facilities and to identify the strength and weaknesses as well as the experts in the country who can be tapped into to give technical support on the continent. “We are not only talking to people, but we are also looking at facilities that could be utilised in the region.”
He also gave the delegates an overview on his PHELA study.  

In her short address, Prof Corli Witthuhn, Vice-Rector: Research and Internationalisation, gave a brief overview on the UFS. According to her, 3% of the university’s 41 000 students are international students – something the UFS would like to increase. In terms of internationalisation, Prof Witthuhn concluded, the UFS has 70 international active partnerships and is proud to have published almost 6 000 research publications in the past five-year period in collaboration with its international researchers and 2 500 international universities. 

According to her, the vision of the university is to be research-led, student-centered and regionally engaged so it can have an impact regionally. “We always talk about playing a national game but with an international audience.” Prof Witthuhn said.

Representatives also toured some of the university’s world-class laboratories in the Department of Pharmacology, Department of Microbiology and Biochemistry, FARMOVS as well as the Prof Felicity Burt’s biosafety Level (BSL) 3 virology laboratory where they got a glimpse into the work being done in these facilities. They also interacted with students and got to see top-of-the-range research equipment. 


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