COVID-19: I want to be a part of the solution against coronavirus, says vaccine trialist.

COVID-19: I want to be a part of the solution against coronavirus, says vaccine trialist.PHOTO: Wits University
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Timothy Lebelwane of Diepsloot is one of 2 000 people in South Africa participating in a COVID-19 vaccine trial spearheaded by Wits University. The same vaccine is also being tested in large trials in the United Kingdom and Brazil.

The 57-year-old healthcare worker started trial-related tests at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Diepsloot, Soweto, last month.

“So yesterday they started me with the vaccination,” says Lebelwane, talking to Spotlight by phone.

“An injection on my left shoulder, it was a little bit sore, not much though. The thing is, you never know whether it’s the real vaccine or a placebo. I have an appointment again with them next week, to check up for side-effects, maybe.”

The injection Lebelwane received the day before he spoke to Spotlight would have been either the ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine or a placebo of normal salt water. The vaccine’s name stems from ChAdOx1, the virus it is made of, a weakened and non-replicating version of a common cold virus. Half the trial’s participants will be injected with the vaccine and the other half with the placebo, so scientists can compare their COVID-19 infection rates. Trial participants will be followed for a year.

Wits is conducting the trial, called the Ox1Cov-19 Vaccine VIDA-trial, in collaboration with the University of Oxford and the Oxford Jenner Institute.

Still at work

Lebelwane has served as an HIV counsellor at the Diepsloot Clinic for the past 15 or 16 years. Before that he worked at a fish counter at a supermarket in Cresta. Speaking to Spotlight from the Diepsloot Clinic, he said he wasn’t feeling any side-effects a day after the injection. That morning he had finished all his breakfast of bread with apricot jam and coffee. He was having a busy day, bustling between consultations with patients who require HIV testing or antiretrovirals.

“I am feeling fine,” says Lebelwane. “I’m feeling just like I did yesterday before I had the injection. I have no side effects. I’m feeling energetic and had a good appetite this morning. Here at the clinic, I have seen a lot of people today, it’s been really busy.”

If all goes well, he says he hopes to be a part of the solution against COVID-19, helping people around the world.

“I have always been interested in medicine and healthcare,” says Lebelwane. “I like working with people and the community, servicing the very same community that I’m living in. Now, with the vaccine, I’m servicing the world. If it goes well, it would be incredible to come up with a real vaccine. I really wish the trial goes well, and that there is a breakthrough.”

As a volunteer, there’s no money in the study for Lebelwane. His only reimbursement is for taxi fare to the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. His motivation for waiting in socially distanced seats in a hospital corridor, for countless jabs and tests including COVID-19 nose swabs, is pure altruism.

“As a health worker, I was curious,” says Lebelwane. “I first heard of the vaccine trial from a lady who came to my clinic to give a talk on the trial. At first, I was afraid, but then I approached her. I thought, why not me? That’s when I said, ‘Okay, let me go and join’. It’s not for the sake of money. I want to help find this vaccine to help people fight COVID-19 around the world.”

The vaccine being used in the South African Ox1Cov-19 Vaccine VIDA-Trial, led by Wits Professor Shabir Madhi, is called ChAdOx1 nCoV-19. It is made from a virus called ChAdOx1, which has been engineered to express the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. PHOTO: Wits University

Part of a global effort

The vaccine, developed by the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford, is being tested in South Africa by a team led by Wits Professor Shabir Madhi, director of the South African Medical Research Council’s Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics Research Unit.

Madhi holds a highly prestigious A-rating with South Africa’s National Research Foundation. As a trained paediatrician, his research has focused on the epidemiology and development of vaccines against pneumonia and diarrhoea, informing World Health Organisation recommendations on the use of lifesaving vaccines for children, and influenza vaccination of pregnant women.

The University of Oxford website explains: “Coronaviruses have club-shaped spikes on their outer coats, which form a corona – Latin for crown – on the virus surface. Immune responses from other coronavirus studies suggest that these spikes are a good target for a vaccine.”

It adds: “The main focus of the Phase I, II and III studies is to assess whether the ChAdOx1 vaccine is going to work against COVID-19, that it does not cause unacceptable side effects and if it induces good immune responses.”

At an earlier Wits University press conference, Madhi noted that the South African leg of the study will include 50 volunteers who have HIV. He added that South African participants are thoroughly educated on what they are consenting to, and that they must pass a test to assess their understanding.

Speaking to Spotlight, Lebelwane describes the researchers as friendly. “There are a lot of doctors dealing with us. They are very friendly and helpful. They explain how things work. I know that if I don’t understand, I can go to them for assistance. I can talk to them normally, like they are normal people, not doctors.”

A highlight

Born in Diepsloot, Lebelwane attended Marobathotha High School in Limpopo until Grade 10, when he says classroom riots saw him quit school to find a job. He found work in a factory, making duvets and pillows.

He says participating in the trial has become a highlight for him. “I first arrived at Baragwanath, I don’t remember the date, but it was late June,” he says. “There were lots of people, I didn’t count. There was an atmosphere of excitement, but it was quiet because we didn’t know each other. Everyone wore masks. Social distancing was created. We were sitting on marked chairs removed from each other,” says Lebelwane.

“Firstly, when I arrived, they screened for HIV, then testing all the functions of the body, including blood pressure and so on. Two or three weeks later, I was called. I went back to Baragwanath, where they did more tests, like swabbing in my nose for COVID. The very same day, they phoned me in the evening, saying I should go back the next day. So I went, and they did more tests. A swab in the nose for COVID, again. It is not sore, you just have to look upward, and that’s it. They did not tell me the results, they just told me about my HIV status, which is negative. Then they phoned me to come again. For more tests and to sign a consent form. And after that, I went back to get my first vaccination injection.”

Stigma like AIDS

Lebelwane says there is a deep fear of COVID-19 in Diepsloot.

“There is a big fear. Whenever people die, other people say ‘corona, corona’.  Even if it wasn’t coronavirus. It’s like AIDS before, there is such a stigma. People used to blame AIDS for all the deaths.

“With coronavirus you never know. All these people walking around looking healthy in Diepsloot, they’re not really wearing masks; just walking around normally. Then when they reach the mall or a shop, they put their masks on. I wear my mask all the time, I am educating people to wear masks. I am telling people about the risk of COVID-19, but people are not listening,” says Lebelwane.

“I don’t know why, I think it is ignorance; even though it is talked about in the media. These people need more education on COVID-19, even churches must preach this message.”

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