The University of Pretoria (UP) has been consistent in its contribution to the fight against COVID-19, thanks in part to support from the University of Leeds.
The English university established the COVID-19 Rapid Response Innovation Fund, which funded six research projects carried out by UP’s Faculty of Health Sciences. The projects focused on providing the necessary equipment and support to communities and frontline workers during the pandemic.
This ranged from publishing the booklet Sibo Stays Healthy and developing a mobile game, both of which educate children between eight and 12 years of age about the virus; to conducting a rapid appraisal in health facilities that are key to the COVID-19 response and providing continuity of healthcare for the homeless around the City of Tshwane.
According to Professor Tiaan de Jager, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, this international collaboration was the evolution of an existing relationship between the two universities.
“I received an invitation from Vice-Chancellor Professor [Tawana] Kupe to join in on a virtual meeting that included Professor Sunil Maharaj, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology [EBIT],” says Prof De Jager. “I gathered that there was an existing relationship between EBIT and Leeds University, and that they were planning to do something. Then COVID-19 struck.”
After a tweak of the initial plan, the COVID-19 response fund was born, and the Faculty of Health Sciences was invited to submit proposals for projects that could be undertaken in order to strengthen the country’s response to the pandemic. Also, prior to this collaboration, the faculty had been working on several projects that could be refocused to form part of its COVID-19 response.
“Our strategic approach in the faculty is what prepared us for something like this,” says Prof De Jager. “Every year, we have a slogan to focus our efforts. In 2020, we used the slogan ‘Action is Key’ to guide us. We often say we need to transform, but then the question becomes: what is the target? When COVID-19 came about, we were prepared. And when we were invited to put forward proposals, we were well-positioned to take on the task.”
He adds that much of the work they were already doing could simply be given a “COVID-19 jacket”. “We do work that focuses strongly on communities, so there were easy transitions we could make.”
Some of these transitions involved a project being run by the Department of Family Medicine, which has a dedicated research entity (Community-Orientated Primary Care Unit) that works in communities and with the homeless, dealing with issues such as substance abuse, food security and health (HIV, TB and diabetes). Another example is the One Health programme, which aims to attain optimal health for people, animals and the environment. Professor Wanda Markotter, whose research area is on bats and viruses, took centre stage due to speculation about bats having spread the virus to humans.
While the period of funding for the projects had drawn to a close, Prof De Jager says the faculty will continue to carry out the projects where possible while looking for other ways to grow the relationship between Leeds University and UP.
“Now that the rapid response projects have been completed, we are definitely considering ways to work together in the future,” he says. “We have strengthened our relationship with Leeds; they value what we’ve contributed as UP, especially because we had such a short time period in which to deliver. I am looking forward to closer collaborations within UP, and to taking on bigger issues and innovations with Leeds University.”
Prof Kupe, who was instrumental in connecting the teams from the EBIT and Health Sciences faculties with the team from Leeds University, said he is proud of the work that has been done.
“One of the things that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us is how important it is to be nimble-footed,” he says. “The ability of our Health Sciences Faculty to take existing programmes and alter them in order for them to be part of the rapid response to the scourge of the virus shows how forward-thinking the faculty is, and showcases the high-calibre academics, researchers and professionals that call UP home. I look forward to more successful collaborations with Leeds University in the future.”