With COVID-19 highlighting glaring healthcare deficiencies, Health Minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize, has challenged South Africa’s research institutions to accelerate innovation in medical advancement to ensure that the National Healthcare Insurance becomes a reality.

The Health Minister made the call in his address during the virtual 2020 Bio Africa Convention on Monday.  

“We have noticed during this pandemic how genexpert equipment became quite handy in the diagnosis of COVID-19. We now know that our healthcare industry is dependent on imported technology and products, even for what is considered low-tech,” he said.

This, said Mkhize, raises the cost of healthcare, which limits quality healthcare, a constitutional right for all.

He also challenged universities to follow the example of the national ventilator project and continue to manufacture medicines and medical devices locally.

“The issue for us is focus on future surveillance, and prediction of resurgence and prevention to avoid future devastation. The issues that have been raised around vaccine technology, diagnostics and therapeutics are new areas of challenge that we have to focus on,” he said.

Mkhize said he was encouraged that the conference would discuss local innovation in diagnostics, therapeutics, medical devices and vaccines.

“This is an issue that has actually arisen quite widely, as South Africa was struggling to find solutions for a problem where there was already a global shortage and demand, making it difficult for us to access supply chain programmes from traditional suppliers.”

He commended the sharing of indigenous knowledge systems, which explored the usage of traditional herbs such as umhlonyane and ginger, among others.

“All of [this has] opened up new areas of research,” said Mkhize.

The pandemic, he said, has also heightened the need for collaboration between engineering, bio-medical experts, behavioural experts and other professionals, civil society and sectors to defeat the pandemic.

“The defeat of the virus in the laboratory is not adequate to contain the spread of infection. We need community mobilisation for behavioural change. The impact also on the economy raises all the fault lines of our past inequality and underdevelopment – and have been immense,” he said.

He urged the conference to look at how science and innovation should be effectively utilised to provide solutions to global challenges. These include poverty, unemployment, inequality, bridging the gap in underdevelopment and unequal access to health services, improvement of education, facilitation of trade and the creation of prosperous and sustainable communities.

Last year, the convention’s theme was ‘From consumers to leading innovation’.

“Little did we know how prophetic this statement was,” said Mkhize. “Less than a year later, COVID-19 has engulfed the entire world.”

The pandemic has led to global disruptions in supply chains of important diagnostics and medicines.

“Every country has had to look internally to plug these gaps. We have to look at our own capabilities to provide solutions to our own challenges … While we are faced with a global problem, we appreciate our domestic dynamics and solutions that are relevant to the African context.”

While innovations from countries in the northern hemisphere were “incredible”, the Minister said they were mainly designed to fulfil and meet the market demands there.

“By the time they get to the south, they are either too expensive or they are not matched to our needs. Consequently, the vast majority of our patients in society do not necessarily benefit from the innovations and sciences, at least not in time when these are made available,” he said.

This, said Mkhize, begs the question of how innovation was accelerated locally.

“More importantly, how [do] we benefit as a country, as a continent? It is a matter of throwing in more resources at research.

“It has been gratifying to see how all universities have stepped up to the challenges in the wake of the pandemic,” said the Minister.

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