South Africa will roll out the continent's first coronavirus vaccine trial this week, the university leading the pilot said today, as the country grapples with the highest number of cases in Africa.
The vaccine, developed by the Oxford Jenner Institute, is already being evaluated in Britain, where 4,000 participants have signed up for the trial.
South Africa has set out to vaccinate 2,000 people with the vaccine known as ChAdOx1 nCoV-19. Fifty of the candidates have HIV.
"We began screening participants for the South African Oxford 1 Covid-19 vaccine trial last week, and the first participants will be vaccinated this week," University of Witwatersrand (Wits) vaccinology professor Shabir Madhi told a virtual press conference.
Brazil is planning its own pilot, while the United States is preparing to test another vaccine in a mass trial of up to 30,000 participants.
Wits is collaborating with the University of Oxford and the Oxford Jenner Institute on the South African trial.
South Africa's coronavirus cases jumped to more than 100,000 yesterday, while the number of deaths inched towards 2,000.
Officials implemented a strict nationwide lockdown on 27 March, just weeks after the virus first hit South Africa.
But confinement measures are being gradually phased out to allow business to pick up and limit damage to an already ailing economy.
"As we enter winter in South Africa and pressure increases on public hospitals, now more than ever we need a vaccine to prevent infection by Covid-19," Prof Madhi said, describing the vaccine trial as a "landmark moment".
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize echoed Prof Madhi's concerns, warning that South Africa was going through a "devastating storm" expected to peak "during the cold winter months".
At the opening of a field hospital in the Eastern Cape province, Mr Mkhize said there were now more than 27,000 beds for Covid-19 patients and over 400 quarantine sites across the country.
"Our scientific estimation is that 60 to 70 percent of our population may be infected by coronavirus," Mr Mkhize said at the launch today, adding that hospitalisation rates remained lower than anticipated.