Professor Bavesh Kana and Dr Bhavna Gordhan, who both received the SAMRC Career Development Award, along with their team, were able to make the remarkable achievement in the face of the global pandemic, the SAMRC said.
Up to now, Kana and his team were able to generate "naked" DNA and safe, non-infection encapsulated controls.
"The remaining hurdle was the production of the live virus as an additional control for validating tests," the SAMRC said in a statement on Wednesday.
This process involved teams across institutions who were able to provide samples of the virus which causes Covid-19.
"Once these reagents were ready, they were taken into the BSL3 lab, led by Prof Kana, for infection and viral propagation.
"The first harvest of the virus was then provided to Professor Lesley Scott and Lara Noble at Wits University and the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) for validation of test kits," the SAMRC explained.
Kana, who heads up the Wits University node of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence for Biomedical TB Research, is no stranger to handling infectious viruses. He expressed his excitement about the process of harvesting the virus, saying it was a pivotal moment in the plan to prepare for the validation of tests.
"My hand was shaking as we pipetted our first harvest of the live virus," he said.
Kana worked in a biosafety level three (BSL3) lab – which was a challenge to set up in the country as there were not many which could be modelled, and information had to be gathered from limited exposure to BSL3 labs in the UK.
Now, however, things have changed.
"We were able to quickly respond to the Covid-19 pandemic and adapt a BSL3 laboratory geared for dealing with infectious bacteria to carry out work with a highly infectious virus," said Gordhan, a senior medical scientists at the Biomedical TB research centre.
Kana explained the important contribution made by funders in benefiting staff and infrastructure capacity for this moment.
"Many of my students have held scholarships through the SAMRC's Research Capacity Development division. Further, during my early career, I was generously supported by the SAMRC's extramural Molecular Mycobacteriology Research Unit led by Valerie Mizrahi," Kana said.
The achievement is a "great feat" for the SAMRC, the science community and South Africa as it demonstrates commitment to developing the next generation of leaders in science, president and CEO of the SAMRC Glenda Gray said.
"[I]t is responsive science addressing the Covid-19 crisis," Gray added.
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