UCT joins search for COVID-19 vaccine

26 August 2020 | Story Niémah Davids. Photo Getty Images. Read time 7 min.
UCT is participating in three international COVID-19 vaccine trials.
UCT is participating in three international COVID-19 vaccine trials.

South Africa has joined global counterparts in search for a COVID-19 vaccine and the University of Cape Town (UCT) is lending a hand, participating in three international trials in the country, alongside several other universities.

According to Professor Linda-Gail Bekker, the deputy director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre at UCT’s Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM), more COVID-19 vaccine candidates will soon be available for clinical trials in the country.

Professor Bekker said that a Johnson & Johnson product, Ad26.COV2-S, and a Novavax product, NVX-CoV2373, will both be trialled in the country as of next month. Bekker is the national principal investigator of the Johnson & Johnson trial alongside Professor Glenda Gray, the president and chief executive of the South African Medical Research Council and the protocol chairperson of this trial.


“It is very important for South Africa to participate [in vaccine trials] because we can contribute to the global cause.”

The latest developments come in the wake of South Africa’s first COVID-19 vaccine trial, ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, led by the University of the Witwatersrand’s Professor Shabir Madhi in partnership with Oxford University, and executed in association with the UCT Lung Institute (one of several trial sites in the country) under the guidance of UCT’s Professor Keertan Dheda, the head of the Centre for Lung Infection and Immunity at the UCT Lung Institute.

“It is very important for South Africa to participate [in vaccine trials] because we can contribute to the global cause, and it helps scientists understand how South Africans will respond to these [vaccine] candidates,” Bekker said.

“It also gives us an opportunity to investigate if there are any safety concerns and, importantly, to claim the vaccines once [they have] found to be effective and rolled out.”

‘Timing is everything’

Bekker said that scientists are only able to test the efficacy and safety of vaccine candidates in an area where the virus is currently circulating or being transmitted. Therefore, eligible candidates, aged 18 years and older, who live and work in COVID-19 hotspot areas have been identified as primary participants.

“If we are to participate, we need to do it while there are ongoing COVID[-19] infections in the general community and select participants who are most at risk of exposure to COVID-19. Timing is everything in this process.”

The process is straightforward. Participants are injected into one or both arms with either a placebo or the potential SARS-CoV-2 vaccine at a trial site approved to conduct the study. Trials are double-blinded, which means that both the scientist and participant are unaware of who received the placebo or the potential vaccine.


“We hope the vaccine will be safe and well tolerated [by participants].”

Participants are then asked to return to trial sites at various intervals for blood tests that enable immunogenicity studies. This helps scientists to determine how the body’s immune system is reacting to the vaccine. Using these blood samples, scientists can also monitor candidates for signs of COVID-19, other illnesses and potential harmful side effects.

Should a participant develop COVID-19 during the process, Bekker said that scientists will monitor the candidate closely to help them determine the progression and severity of the virus. In conclusion, researchers will conduct a comparison study to determine the number of participants who received the vaccine candidate and contracted the virus and compare this with those who received the placebo.

“This tells us then what the vaccine efficacy is,” she said.

“We hope the vaccine will be safe and well tolerated [by participants] and that it will eventually reduce the number of COVID[-19] cases on a much bigger scale.”

‘Viable’ trials

Scientists are hopeful that more than one of the vaccine candidates will yield some positive results since multiple vaccine platforms are currently under investigation.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine candidate, Bekker explained, is based on a vector (harmless carrier) approach whereby the antigen (immunogenic component) is inserted into an adenovirus 26 vector.

The vaccine candidate uses the vector to deliver the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein into host cells where it stimulates the body to raise immune responses against COVID-19. Adenovirus 26, she said, is a well-known and trusted candidate that causes mild cold-like symptoms in humans and has been an effective vector for vaccine candidates for Ebola and the Zika virus.


“And here in South Africa, as we speak, it’s also being evaluated as a potential [vaccine] candidate for HIV.”

“And here in South Africa, as we speak, it’s also being evaluated as a potential [vaccine] candidate for HIV. So, we are old friends with this approach.”

Pre-clinical trials on the Johnson & Johnson and Novavax vaccine candidates have shown positive immune responses during earlier phases, which included testing its effectiveness on animals.

The three vaccines currently being evaluated in South Africa have been included on the World Health Organization’s list of 26 most viable candidate vaccines to enter human clinical trials. Bekker said that the Johnson & Johnson trial is currently in phase three and officially kick-starts in the country next month. The Novavax and Oxford trials are both in phase two, with phase three trials planned to start within weeks.

“Typically, phase two involves hundreds of participants and phase three involves thousands,” she said.

Participation is paramount

According to Professor Dheda, participating in vaccine trials is critical.

He said that it is especially important for South Africa to get involved because of the country’s diverse genetic background, which will count in scientists’ favour as they work to establish how well different ethnic groups globally respond to the vaccine, and if they do so in the same manner.

“The immune systems of participants in African countries have greater exposure to environmental bacteria and parasites,” Dheda said.

The UCT Lung Institute is recruiting participants in the Western Cape to facilitate both screening and vaccinating for the Novavax and ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine product trials. At the end of the process, Dheda said that the data will be collated to determine the efficacy of both vaccines.

“We need to take an active interest in our future to determine if the vaccine will work in our setting. It may also facilitate vaccine access for South Africans. Historically, it has taken several years for vaccines to reach Africa,” he said.

“More than that, our participation will also help to mitigate the COVID-19 stigma.”

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.

Coronavirus Disease 2019 updates

COVID-19 is a global pandemic that caused President Cyril Ramaphosa to declare a national disaster in South Africa on 15 March 2020 and to implement a national lockdown from 26 March.

UCT is taking the threat of infection in our university community extremely seriously, and this page will be updated regularly with the latest COVID-19 information. Please note that the information on this page is subject to change depending on current lockdown regulations.

Frequently asked questions


Daily updates

Friday, 5 February 14:20, 5 February 2021
Monday, 4 January 16:50, 4 January 2021
Friday, 18 December 11:30, 18 December 2020
Thursday, 19 November 09:30, 19 November 2020
Friday, 13 November 12:40, 13 November 2020
Friday, 16 October 10:05, 16 October 2020
Wednesday, 14 October 12:50, 14 October 2020
Tuesday, 22 September 14:10, 22 September 2020
Friday, 11 September 10:05, 11 September 2020
Monday, 31 August 12:20, 31 August 2020
Wednesday, 12 August 10:20, 12 August 2020
Friday, 7 August 11:24, 7 August 2020
Thursday, 6 August 18:26, 6 August 2020
Monday, 27 July 14:00, 27 July 2020
Wednesday, 15 July 09:30, 15 July 2020
Monday, 13 July 14:25, 13 July 2020
Monday, 6 July 16:20, 6 July 2020
Thursday, 25 June 10:15, 25 June 2020
Tuesday, 23 June 12:30, 23 June 2020
Thursday, 18 June 17:35, 18 June 2020
Wednesday, 17 June 10:45, 17 June 2020
Tuesday, 2 June 12:20, 2 June 2020
Friday, 29 May 09:25, 29 May 2020
Monday, 25 May 14:00, 25 May 2020
Thursday, 21 May 12:00, 21 May 2020
Wednesday, 6 May 10:00, 6 May 2020
Tuesday, 5 May 17:05, 5 May 2020
Thursday, 30 April 17:10, 30 April 2020
Tuesday, 28 April 10:30, 28 April 2020
Friday, 24 April 09:35, 24 April 2020
Thursday, 23 April 17:00, 23 April 2020
Wednesday, 22 April 14:25, 22 April 2020
Monday, 20 April 17:45, 20 April 2020
Friday, 17 April 12:30, 17 April 2020
Thursday, 16 April 09:45, 16 April 2020
Tuesday, 14 April 11:30, 14 April 2020
Thursday, 9 April 09:00, 9 April 2020
Wednesday, 8 April 15:40, 8 April 2020
Wednesday, 1 April 15:50, 1 April 2020
Friday, 27 March 11:40, 27 March 2020
Thursday, 26 March 18:30, 26 March 2020
Tuesday, 24 March 15:40, 24 March 2020
Monday, 23 March 15:40, 23 March 2020
Friday, 20 March 16:00, 20 March 2020
Thursday, 19 March 09:15, 19 March 2020
Wednesday, 18 March 16:00, 18 March 2020
Tuesday, 17 March 12:50, 17 March 2020
Monday, 16 March 17:15, 16 March 2020

Campus communications


New SRC and other updates 16:44, 4 November 2020
Virtual graduation ceremonies 13:30, 21 October 2020
Online staff assembly and other updates 15:09, 30 September 2020
Fee adjustments and other updates 15:21, 16 September 2020
Call for proposals: TLC2020 10:15, 26 August 2020
SAULM survey and other updates 15:30, 5 August 2020
COVID-19 cases and other updates 15:26, 5 August 2020
New UCT Council and other updates 15:12, 15 July 2020
Upcoming UCT virtual events 09:30, 15 July 2020
Pre-paid data for UCT students 14:25, 22 April 2020
Update for postgraduate students 12:55, 20 April 2020
UCT Human Resources and COVID-19 16:05, 19 March 2020
UCT confirms second COVID-19 case 09:15, 19 March 2020
Update on UCT COVID-19 response 13:50, 11 March 2020
Update on COVID-19 17:37, 6 March 2020


Video messages from the Department of Medicine

Getting credible, evidence-based, accessible information and recommendations relating to COVID-19

The Department of Medicine at the University of Cape Town and Groote Schuur Hospital, are producing educational video material for use on digital platforms and in multiple languages. The information contained in these videos is authenticated and endorsed by the team of experts based in the Department of Medicine. Many of the recommendations are based on current best evidence and are aligned to provincial, national and international guidelines. For more information on UCT’s Department of Medicine, please visit the website.

To watch more videos like these, visit the Department of Medicine’s YouTube channel.

Useful information from UCT

External resources

News and opinions

Statements and media releases

Media releases

Read more  

Statements from Government


In an email to the UCT community, Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng said:
“COVID-19, caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2, is a rapidly changing epidemic. [...] Information [...] will be updated as and when new information becomes available.”


We are continuing to monitor the situation and we will be updating the UCT community regularly – as and when there are further updates. If you are concerned or need more information, students can contact the Student Wellness Service on 021 650 5620 or 021 650 1271 (after hours), while staff can contact 021 650 5685.