Welcome to the University of Cape Town News
23 January 2021 Read time 5 min.
The COVID-19 pandemic saw our Faculty staff and students respond with heartfelt compassion and dedication to working collaboratively. Many research activities were pivoted to address the new questions arising - in the basic sciences, on the clinical platform and in the community - with inspiring results. Our teaching moved innovatively to blended learning - remotely and onsite. On the clinical platform, our colleagues also collaborated across disciplines to treat COVID-19 patients, while still maintaining essential patient care. Here are some of our Departmental highlights:
Anaesthesia and Perioperative Medicine
Our focus extends into the rest of Africa. We collaborate across Africa on Cardio-vascular Anaesthesia, with colleagues like the African Perioperative Research Group, and have developed our Airway and Thoracic Fellowship to grow capacity across the continent. The Division of Critical Care Medicine, incorporated into the Department, was at the forefront of the COVID-19 response, and led the African COVID-19 Critical Care Outcomes Study (ACCCOS). We have a high success rate of between eight and ten Master of Medicine (MMed) degrees per annum, which are often published in reputable international journals, and over 60 peer-reviewed papers and international book chapters were published during 2020. The Department has received many accolades. The University of Cape Town (UCT) Distinguished Teacher Award recipient for 2020 went to A/Prof Romy Parker, our COVID-19 Training Project Teamcare (established on the Education and Simulation Fellowship developed by Dr Rowan Duys) was recognised for the training and support to all medical personnel in the hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 was a major focus for colleagues in 2020. I am deeply appreciative of those who provided support in clinics (A/Prof Karen Fieggen: Human Genetics); trained undertakers to process the remains of COVID-19 patients (Forensic Medicine’s Dr Marise Heyns); did metagenomic sequencing for the diagnosis of central nervous system sequlae in COVID-19 patients in the Cape Town Metropole, possibly a first for Africa (Medical Microbiology); how Virology colleagues were the first nationally to offer COVID-19 testing; those who established a programme to make a vaccine against COVID-19 (Prof Anna-Lise Williamson); and those who were part of the national Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa, instrumental in identifying the emergence of the new SARS-CoV-2 variant strain (501Y.V2) (Prof Carolyn Williamson). The inherited Retinal Diseases Group is part of a ‘first-time’ clinical trial for preventing blindness in people with Stargardt Disease, an inherited form of blindness (Prof Raj Ramesar, Dr Lisa Roberts, Sr Gameda Benefeld and Dr George Rebello). Honours student Zanele Melissa Simango was among Mail and Guardian Top 200 young South Africans (Civil Society Category).
COVID-19 has led to a great deal of suffering for many and I’m proud that our Department contributed to key aspects of mental health support, including provision of consultation-liaison services at both Groote Schuur Hospital (GSH) and Red Cross Childrens’ War Memorial Hospital (Red Cross), as well as ongoing care in the West Metro mental health services. Despite COVID-19, our Divisions have continued teaching (moving quickly to virtual teaching) and training (including a range of training across the country and the continent); proceeded with research (ranging from basic neuroscience, through clinical research, and on to public mental health research), to social responsiveness (engaging with a wide range of communities and stakeholders); and continued implementing transformation (with ongoing attention to moving the Department forward in a way that builds us all).
Aside from our deep involvement on the clinical platform treating COVID-19 patients, the main focus of the year was transformation, ending with invigorating diversity and sensitivity workshops which will be cascaded through our department in 2021. The opening of the Neuroscience Institute offered new opportunities to many. Other notable firsts were Elmi Muller’s National Research Foundation (NRF) A-rating (and the Alan Pifer Award for 2020), and Tony Figaji’s election as a Member of the Academy of Sciences of SA - both the first surgeons to be honoured in this way. We are further delighted that seven members of staff were promoted ad hominem to Prof or A/Prof; Johan Fagan and Michael Held received awards for innovation in teaching, and Salome Maswime and Lydia Cairncross were recognised among the Powerful Women of our country by the Mail & Guardian. Above all else, the sacrifices made by all members of our department - in caring for COVID-19 patients, while attempting to sustain services for all our other patients - are deeply appreciated.
Health and Rehabiliation Sciences
The year 2020 was unlike any recent memory. Several months of restricted movement curtailed most of our core functions as a department. Despite this, there were some impressive achievements that are worth sharing: All programmes managed to successfully complete the 2020 academic year and we recorded the most outstanding final year student pass rates. An impressive number of Postgraduate (PG) students completed their degrees (PG Diplomas, Masters and PhDs). The Department also welcomed two additional University-accredited research units (URC), namely Including Disability in Education in Africa (IDEA) and Inclusive Practices Africa (IPA). Several colleagues were appointed to leadership positions in national organisations, including the Department of Health, Health Professionals Council of South Africa (HPCSA) and the South Africa Association of Audiologists. Perhaps the most outstanding highlight of 2020 was the initiative by students in the Department who translated COVID-19 information to South African Sign Language to make it accessible to members of the Deaf community.
A/Prof Sudesh Sivarasu's laboratory in Biomedical Engineering contributed to addressing COVID-19 challenges with several innovative solutions, including a locally manufactured ventilator, for which they received a Viro-Vent Skills Innovation Challenge Grant. Dr Jeroen Swart in Exercise Science and Sports Medicine was part of United Arab Emirates (UAE) Team Emirates that won the 2020 Tour de France. He was the Team Director of Medical Services and also provided biomechanics services. Abid Ali, Claire Bellis and Victoria Damerell from the Cancer laboratory in Cellular, Nutritional and Physiological Sciences were the top three presenters at the 1st ‘3-minute thesis’ competition recently hosted by the Cancer Research Initiative.
Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM)
We have much to be proud of. The IDM became the first academic centre to contribute to a national “surge testing” initiative convened by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and supported by the Solidarity Fund. In a project that exemplified the Institute’s values of collaboration, excellence and impact, three groups (Integrative Biomedical Sciences (IBMS), the South African Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative (SATVI) and The Wellcome Centre for Infectious Diseases Research in Africa (CIDRI-Africa) worked jointly to establish and conduct SARS-CoV-2 testing in collaboration with the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS). Members Carolyn Williamson and Darren Martin made major contributions to the discovery of the viral variant, 501Y.V2, discovered and described by the genomics surveillance network, NGS-SA, led by Prof. Tulio de Oliveira from UKZN. Many of our Members are participating in the national research consortium subsequently formed to address critical questions raised by the emergence and spread of this variant. We are one of eight prestigious research institutes from the United State, South Africa, United Kingdom, Europe, Latin America, China and India included as “sister” institutes in the Life Sciences Across the Globe initiative of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute .
Integrative Biomedical Sciences
Our COVID-19-related work has been incredible: Jonathan Blackburn’s group produced native SARS-CoV-2 N and S protein microarrays to quantify and localise antibody responses in more than 300 COVID-19 patients and controls, obtaining clinical sensitivity and specificity of 100% for confirmed seropositive samples. Due to the surge in SARS-CoV2 diagnostic testing during the pandemic, Drs Georgia Schafer and Melissa Blumenthal collaborated with CIDRI-Africa and the SATVI to set up an in-house testing platform. Nicki Tiffin and the Data Integration team have been assisting the Western Cape Government: Department of Health with ongoing COVID-19 epidemiological analyses. Students (Division of Computational Biology) are using sophisticated models of nucleotide sequence evolution to understand the processes giving rise to mutations in coronaviruses and how arising mutations impact the adaptation of these viruses to their hosts. Congratulations to Prof Iqbal Parker (Division of Medical Biochemistry and Structural Biology) for his election as Vice President of the prestigious African Academy of Science (AAS) for Southern Africa.
We look back with pride and equanimity in how colleagues responded to the COVID-19 pandemic – with substantial commitment and resolve in each pillar of our endeavours: service, training, and research. Clinical service was a key priority in response to the crisis. Many of our elective services were curtailed as we expanded available wards weekly to meet the desperate need. Our clinicians played major roles in provincial, national, and international COVID-19 advisory bodies. We joined the global community of practice in defining best treatment and patient management processes, while studying the mechanisms, evolution, and outcomes of SARS-CoV-2 in our population. Great agility was demonstrated by most researchers who pivoted research programs to address fundamental questions related to COVID-19. Part of our public health response included rapid development and dissemination of COVID-19 video content in 4 South African languages; updated PACK guidance; and a weekly global COVID-19 clinical webinar series. Our undergraduate teaching platform was moved into online delivery for academic content as an initial response. As we recover from these first 2 waves, we have prioritised staff well-being.
Obstetrics and Gynaecology
We are extremely proud of our achievements during a difficult year, including serving on international bodies. Prof Silke Dyer was nominated to join the Education Committee of the International Federation of Fertility Societies. She further participated in the 37th World Health Organization (WHO) meeting of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Group to the Department of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Research. Head of Department Prof Lynette Denny was appointed on the World Health Organization (WHO) Clinical Guidelines Committee for the Elimination of Cervical Cancer. Prof Mushi Matjila was appointed to serve on the Editorial Board for the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Global Reports. Dr Nomonde Mbatani was approved for admission to UCT Senate. We also celebrated examination successes: sub-specialists Dr Lizle Oosthuizen and Dr Rendani Tshikosi in Reproductive Medicine; Drs Tasneem Ahmed, Marcelle Schutte and Daniel Bengesai in Part II; and Dr Tasneem Ahmed passed her MMed thesis with distinction.
Our overall response to the COVID-19 pandemic reflected remarkable adaptation and commitment to ongoing optimisation of care for children under difficult circumstances. Our volunteer team under Prof Liesl Zuhlke also provided extra-ordinary care and support for COVID-19 screening, testing, and follow up at Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital (RXH). We continued our excellent pass rate for all specialist and subspecialist examinations. Service delivery in our sub-divisions was ongoing. We had remarkable responses in terms of our research and the research proposals submitted. There was substantial recognition of our work in 2020. Prof Liesl Zuhlke was nominated as finalist of the 2019/2020 National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)-South32 Awards; and Prof Mike Levin was awarded the 2020 International Distinguished Fellow Award of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI). Colleagues in the department head three international organisations: Prof Mignon McCulloch (President of the
International Paediatric Transplant Association (and South African Paediatric Association); Prof Jo Wilmshurst (President of the International Child Neurology Association); Prof Brenda Morrow ( President Elect of the World Federation of Pediatric Intensive and Critical Care Societies).The RXH Radio team programme: Children’s Voices on COVID-19 was chosen as one of the two winners of the Rebooth Health & Wellness innovation challenge! The Harry Crossley Children’s Nursing Unit was confirmed, with Prof Minette Coetzee as Director. Prof Heather Zar was recently awarded the prestigious 2020 SAMRC Scientific Merit Award (Platinum award), as well as receiving a very successful review of the SAMRC unit under her leadership.
Primary Health Care Directorate
Our staff was fully involved in COVID-19 activities, including clinical support at the Cape Town International Conference Centre (CTICC) field hospital, the Community Action Networks, isolation facilities, and health promotion in various communities. The demands on the teaching platform also changed radically, with the need for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), sudden changes to venues and community visits, as well as protection for clinical students in hospitals and clinics. Moving Undergraduate (UG) and Postgraduate (PG) curricula to Emergency Remote Teaching while ensuring that all the students were included and unstressed, was a challenge but managed successfully. Within the constraints of online conferences, the Breath Symposium was a great success and provided an incredible show case for artists, activists, academics and health care practitioners to showcase and talk about their work. In all, 2020 was a steep learning curve!
School of Public Health and Family Medicine
Our work was profoundly impacted and played an important role in understanding and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Family Medicine had a central role in training and supporting family physicians, including helping to staff the “Hospital of Hope” at the Cape Town International Convention Centre. Occupational Medicine played a pivotal role in developing evidence-based policies to help protect health care workers, while Public Health Medicine helped lead the Western Cape’s monitoring of the spread of the epidemic through surveillance and informatics systems. Several of these accomplishments gained widespread attention, including the Western Cape’s COVID-19 “dashboard” developed by several current and former trainees.
In a challenging year, the Department managed to deliver all scheduled UCT-based teaching, as well as create a brand-new advanced course. All Radiotherapy and Medical Physics classrooms were converted to facilitate remote teaching, including access to the treatment planning computer laboratory. We also delivered one onsite Access to Care (A2C) onsite basic Radiotherapy course. Participants from four countries in Africa as well as multiple facilities within South Africa attended the A2C course. We are delighted that A/Prof Sulaiman Moosa was appointed Head of Radiology, and that Dr Rachelle Steyn was awarded the 2021South African Society of Nuclear Medicine (SASNM) Saul Hertz young-investigator award.