COVID-19 vaccine results hopeful, but don’t hold your breath
While South Africa begins its part in the human testing phase of a COVID-19 vaccine, our experts don’t expect any such vaccine to be available until next year.
Professor Lucille Blumberg, the deputy director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), is extremely positive about the vaccine tests, but says, “Realistically, we aren’t looking at a vaccine before early next year. That’s the best we can hope for.”
Professor Barry Schoub, emeritus professor in virology at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), and the former director of the NICD, says, “We can really talk about a widely available, reasonably cheap and safe vaccine only at the end of next year. That’s assuming all the trials go well. We need to be really careful about health safety as we’re giving a virus to healthy people.”
Nonetheless, Schoub says the preliminary results have been positive. “They have produced the necessary antibodies and minimal side effects. It looks very promising.”
The initial South African vaccine trial is being run at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto by Shabir Madhi, professor of vaccinology at Wits. This is part of a multinational study that includes South Africa, the United Kingdom, Brazil, and the United States.
While sourcing a vaccine typically takes about a decade, researchers are expediting the process. More than 100 vaccine candidates are being developed. There are, however, four vaccines which are leading the race, says Jeffrey Dorfman, an associate professor of virology at Stellenbosch University.
“Of the four, two are being developed by Moderna and Pfizer BioNTech, and are RNA vaccines,” Dorfman, told the SA Jewish Report. “These vaccines are made up of RNA, which is taken up by cells and directs the body’s own cells to make a protein that the virus uses to get into cells, called the spike protein [that attaches itself to the cells].”
The vaccine that South Africa is testing, according to Blumberg, who participated in Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein’s webinar on Sunday, is from Astra-Zeneca (in partnership with Oxford University’s Jenner Institute).
“This vaccine is based on a common-cold virus of animal origin. It has been modified so it’s safe. It doesn’t multiply, and is coded to produce the spike protein for the COVID-19 virus,” she says.
“If you inject this vaccine, the body will mount an immune response to it. So, when you are challenged with the virus itself, you already have antibodies. Early studies would support it producing an immune response,” Blumberg says.
Dorfman says vaccine-trial preparation is taking place in Johannesburg and Cape Town, with volunteers being recruited to test the efficacy of the Oxford vaccine.
He believes this vaccine is probably better than the Cansino vaccine because it uses a chimpanzee cold virus. “This is helpful because very, very few people have been previously exposed to it. If a patient who has been vaccinated has already been exposed to the cold virus that is the scaffolding of the vaccine, then that immune response will inhibit the vaccine.
“The cold-virus-based vaccines also have much more data to back up their safety from testing of these other vaccines,” Dorfman says.
The group in South Africa is “highly experienced in testing vaccines, probably the most experienced at this in Africa”, Dorfman says. “The antibody measurement will be done at the laboratory of Professors Lynn Morris and Penny Moore at the NICD, which has been measuring neutralising antibodies for HIV-1 and influenza for years, making this a very experienced choice.”
He says the trials have been approved by authorities within Wits and by the South Africa Health Products Regulatory Agency.
“This is necessary to be sure that study participants aren’t exposed to any undue risk or incentives large enough that might make them overlook risks,” he says.
While no one is sure what the trials will yield, results of initial trails have given hope.
“At this stage, they are close to the best possible results for the four vaccines,” says Dorfman. “The basic idea concerns neutralising antibodies or antibodies that bind to the virus in a way to prevent it from infecting a cell. If a virus can’t infect a cell, it can’t reproduce.
“These antibodies are the most logical thing to look for in a vaccine, and are logically presumed to protect the person vaccinated.”
However, both he and Schoub stress that no one knows if neutralising antibodies will protect people, how long it will be effective, or if other immune responses are needed.
“This will only become clear in the bigger trials now running that will vaccinate larger groups of people and look to see if the vaccinated study participants are less likely to contract COVID-19,” says Dorfman.
“Keep in mind that only something like one in 10 vaccines that go to trial are good enough to be licensed, and none for more difficult diseases such as HIV-1 and malaria.
“Vaccine development usually takes about 10 years,” says Schoub “It goes from proof of concept in a laboratory when an agent is identified, to being developed for animal testing, and only then can clinical trials begin.”
The last leg comprises three phases, he says.
“The first two involve small numbers of human volunteers [about 100], and are aimed at determining the dosage which will elicit an immune response without side effects and whether the vaccine is genetically stable.
“Phase three is when we get to evaluate the efficacy of a candidate vaccine. Typically, it needs a large number of test subjects, so thousands of people are involved. This is where we are right now.”
Freedom Day fight for Liliesleaf’s survival
Nicholas Wolpe, the founder and chief executive of the Liliesleaf Trust, is a man on a sad, lonely mission.
Out of desperation, he has become the mouthpiece for the arts, heritage, and culture sector, one which in his view is dismally neglected and forgotten about.
Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, Johannesburg, described as the “nerve centre of the liberation movement”, is hanging by a thread and facing permanent closure due to a funding crisis exacerbated by the pandemic.
Once a hive of activity frequented by many Jewish struggle stalwarts and their famous brothers in arms during the height of the struggle, the secret safehouse turned internationally renowned place of memory, now stands forlorn and overgrown.
It was at Liliesleaf that a group of dedicated activists including Nelson Mandela were arrested during a police raid in 1963 for planning to overthrow the apartheid government. The raid led to the Rivonia Treason Trial.
Among the freedom fighters was Nicholas’ father, Harold Wolpe, Arthur Goldreich, Denis Goldberg, Lionel Bernstein, and James Kantor.
“The Jewish population made up a miniscule percentage of the population and here, these activists comprised 40% of those arrested,” Wolpe told the SA Jewish Report this week.
The once popular tourist attraction hasn’t been open since last March, and like many struggle heritage sites in the country, risks closure.
“Many of our historical sites of memory, including Robben Island, have deteriorated and are a shadow of their former selves,” said Wolpe.
Like Liliesleaf, they are “either on life support or are being forced to close their doors. Some even consider auction in the hope of securing a benefactor who will ensure their survival”, he said.
Many historical sites are dilapidated and falling apart. Wolpe emphasises the repercussions should these crucial places of memory be threatened with closure.
This week, on Freedom Day, 27 April, Liliesleaf launched a crowdfunding campaign in a last-ditch attempt to keep this vital place of history afloat.
“It’s crucial that we keep the memory of the struggle against apartheid alive,” he said.
Wolpe was a baby when police raided Liliesleaf Farm on 11 July 1963, arresting the high command of Umkhonto we Sizwe. His father, Harold, was one of them.
It led to the famous Rivonia Trial at which eight accused, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Denis Goldberg, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, and Raymond Mhlaba, were sentenced to life imprisonment.
Wolpe’s parents, Harold and AnnMarie, fled into exile shortly after Harold escaped from the Marshall Square police headquarters in Johannesburg by bribing a young warder, just before the start of the Rivonia Trial. Nicholas returned to South Africa as a young man on a mission to bring those defining moments in the history of South Africa to life. He went back to Liliesleaf Farm, and created an independent site of memory.
In spite of many funding challenges, he has shown steadfast commitment and dedication to ensuring that “a unique and seminal epoch in our struggle for freedom isn’t lost and forgotten, but remembered and honoured”.
It hasn’t been easy for Wolpe.
“There exists an indifference to preserving the memory of our struggle. Current government policy doesn’t recognise independent heritage sites so they are denied access to much-needed government funding,” he said.
Places like Liliesleaf rely on donations, tourism, entrance fees, and school visits, all hard hit during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I fear that our liberation history will fade from our collective consciousness and will hold little meaning, particularly for our youth and future generations,” he said.
“Historical sites like Liliesleaf should be given the attention they deserve and the funding they desperately need. This way, the men and women who sacrificed their own lives so that the South Africans of today could enjoy the fruits of freedom will be honoured.”
He said Liliesleaf recognised the unique, ethical, and principled group of leaders who rose above self-interest and aspirations.
“Service was a fundamental aspect of what they were doing. It’s what drove them as a collective. They didn’t seek affirmation, reward, or publicity. They fought for a free, equal, just society. Together they symbolised the essence of being a servant of the people,” he said.
“South Africa is grappling with corruption, self-interest, and state capture – the very antithesis of the ideals, principles, beliefs, and aspirations of struggle heroes. Places like Liliesleaf stand as a reminder to the youth of the importance of what underpinned our struggle and what can be achieved through a unified commitment defined and underpinned by self-dedication.
“Arts, culture, and heritage is the soul of our nation, and theatres and many places like Liliesleaf are our link to the past, our connection to the present, and our bridge to our future,” Wolpe said.
“Liliesleaf has a crucial and indispensable role to play in highlighting that the Freedom Charter was not merely a statement, but a statement of intent. It was a reality as highlighted by the role individuals across the colour bar played in the fight for freedom, justice, equality, and democracy. This is why we must take a stand before it’s too late.”
The crowdfunding campaign will help to meet basic operating costs such as staff salaries and utilities. It asks people to donate R27 or R60 to commemorate 27 years of democracy, the 27 years Nelson Mandela spent in prison, and the 60th anniversary, this August, since Liliesleaf was purchased. Donations can be made via the Liliesleaf website.
Kramer quits COVID advisory over “community flouting protocols”
One of the community’s top COVID-19 advisors this week lashed out at the community for flouting rules and putting lives at risk. Professor Efraim Kramer said he could no longer contribute to the safety of the community during the pandemic in light of this brazen behaviour.
“In a nutshell, I’m fed up,” Kramer told the SA Jewish Report. He said while the first surge “brought out the best in the community”, the second wave “brought out the worst in us”. His frustration has been mounting for some weeks in light of the number of deaths in the community. Last week, two members of his family passed away from COVID-19.
“I don’t care if I upset people. My aim is just to save lives. I don’t want to implicate anybody. The final straw came this week when President Cyril Ramaphosa allowed faith gatherings to take place, and people went to shul the next day. Where was the consultation? No meetings were held on how best to re-open shuls.”
Kramer is the head of the Division of Emergency Medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), and Professor of Sports Medicine at Pretoria University. He has specialised in emergency medicine for 30 years, and was FIFA’s tournament medical officer at the Soccer World Cup in 2018. Along with other experts, he has advised the office of the chief rabbi on matters related to COVID-19 and shuls.
“I have written at least eight different protocols for things like weddings, Barmitzvahs, yom tov [gatherings], and shuls and it seems that everyone is doing what they like,” he said. “Come December, in the middle of a raging pandemic, people got in their cars or on flights and headed straight for hotspots. They flew home knowing they were infected. The results have been devastating, people have died. We’ve done this to ourselves. We’re doing it to our own.”
He said the communal leadership was “paralysed”. In a strongly worded message he sent to Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein and members of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues, he wrote, “Please note, with regret, that I have withdrawn from all community COVID-19 commitments and communications due to the total disregard and ignoring of the various safety protocols developed for the shuls and the community by many. I will no longer consult on any COVID-19 issue because it generally amounts to nothing as most people are still intent on doing their own thing anyway, in spite of advice to the contrary. But then, who am I to give advice anyway.”
Kramer said he had received countless complaints from members of the community afraid to attend large simchas which had been taking place “as if things are normal”. On Wednesday, he received another complaint from a community member who lamented that while a caterer was following protocols, guests were dancing, hugging, and behaving as if it was a pre-COVID-19 wedding.
“I drive past a shul every day and see countless cars outside. There have been minyanim taking place. The shuls have relaxed their protocols. I went into a bakery last week, and things were haywire. People were on top of each other using the same tongs and there was no safe distancing. It was a disgrace. As a doctor, I can’t fight this anymore. I’m going back to hospitals where at least the patients appreciate what I’m doing.
“While many people are being very careful, there are those who don’t care about the next guy. They think they are ‘holier than thou’ and Hashem will listen to their prayers. When you add up all the incidences, you get a picture of a community that doesn’t care for one another anymore. And where is the leadership when this is happening? How come nothing was said when shuls continued to open when it was against the law to do so and unsafe?”
Barry Schoub, emeritus professor in virology at Wits and the former director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said, “This is very disappointing news. Professor Kramer has been an absolutely invaluable member of our community medical advisory team and has devoted an incredible amount of his time and energy in drawing up protocols, inspecting shuls, and looking after the safety of functions. He is an international authority on mass gatherings and has world-class credentials which have been so valuable in managing the COVID-19 epidemic. I’m sad at the decision he has taken, but I do understand the intense frustration he is feeling at the attitudes he has come across in a small minority of our community and the disregarding of protocols to safeguard our community by a small minority of shuls and minyanim.”
Leading pulmonologist Dr Carron Zinman said she understood Kramer’s frustration. “We’re all frustrated by people’s complete disregard for safety protocols as it’s so simple to follow the rules. We’re absolutely exhausted, and are tired of watching people struggle for each and every breath knowing that they should have worn a mask/should have kept a safe distance/should have avoided the gathering, and could have avoided getting COVID-19. You realise that you can give the same advice till you’re blue in the face, and people will choose to do what they want. We don’t act as judge, and never compromise our standard of care, going all out to fight for our patients’ lives.”
Said Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, “I was disappointed and surprised to receive Professor Kramer’s resignation on the eve of the president’s announcement allowing for the reopening of shuls, which have been closed for more than a month. I have asked to meet with Professor Kramer to understand his specific concerns because the reports I have received since the reopening of our shuls in August 2020 indicate that the overwhelming majority of shuls have been outstanding and totally dedicated to the implementation of the health and safety protocols drafted by our full medical team.
“As a community, we will continue to be guided by Professor Barry Schoub and Dr Richard Friedland, who remain on our medical team, as we go forward to ensure the highest standards of safety for our community. On behalf of our community, I want to thank Professor Kramer for his months of tireless volunteer work to train and prepare our shuls to function safely in this pandemic.”
Wendy Kahn, the executive director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, said, “We have no knowledge about Professor Kramer’s resignation or the reasons for it. We commend him for his amazing contribution to our community.”
Rabbi Yossi Chaikin, the chairperson of the South African Rabbinical Association, said he was “shocked, surprised, and upset” when he received Kramer’s message. “We are so grateful for his service, and he is so respected. He sat with every rabbi and advised us. And even though he was very strict, we listened to him!
“I know that all shuls have followed his protocols with proper distancing, screening, hand sanitising, and masks – this is being enforced. I also know there have been private minyanim not under our jurisdiction where I believe there were minimal to nil protocols. On behalf of the rabbonim and shuls, I say that we are doing the best we can. It’s sad that people have acted this way leading to this decision, but we will continue to be vigilant.”
Joburg – city of architects and dreamers
In spite of its reputation for being the “engine room” of the country, Johannesburg has many elegant, experimental buildings designed by Jewish architects.
Johannesburg Heritage Foundation’s Flo Bird and Brian McKechnie recently took viewers on a virtual tour of many of these buildings, downtown and uptown. Some of them have fallen into disrepair, but they are still a testament to innovation, and continue to contribute to the lives of those who live and work in them.
The tour, unusually, linked the buildings to their creators’ graves at Westpark Cemetery, with epitaphs contributing to our understanding of who they were.
“This tour was inspired by encountering the graves of architects whose work I loved,” Bird said, pointing out that a virtual tour allows us to traverse the large Westpark Jewish Cemetery with ease.
It started with Morrie (MJ) Jacob, who died in 1950. Jacob designed the Doornfontein Synagogue (1905) otherwise known as the Lions Shul, named for the bronze lions on either side of the stairs. In its day, Doornfontein was a desirable address for Jews. Though today the shul is squashed up against Joe Slovo Drive with an ugly fence, it’s still loved for its beauty and unusual touches like minarets, stone columns, and basilica-like space.
Another one of Jacob’s buildings, Cohn’s Pharmacy in Pageview (1906), is an example of the city’s obsession with corner buildings, which tended to be far more elegant and accentuated than those in the middle of the block. Jacob’s Jewish Guild War Memorial building in the old city centre (1922/23) is a pile of an Edwardian building which also celebrates its corner status.
Israel Wayburne (1983) is known, among other things, for employing famous activist and communist Rusty Bernstein. He’s responsible for a number of the maisonette flats (two down, two up) in Yeoville.
“Each building contributes to an interesting and varied landscape [compared, say, to monotonous Fourways],” said Bird.
One of his most well-known buildings is, in fact, the ohel at Westpark, which has a religious and aesthetic function (in spite of an unsightly drainpipe addition at the front). “Luckily Issie doesn’t have to see it as his grave is on the other side of the building,” Bird commented.
Louis Theodore Obel (1956), who was in partnership with his brother, Mark, was a graduate of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) – as were many of the architects mentioned. Obel and Obel made a great contribution to art deco architecture, including the Barbican Building (1930), which was the tallest building in Johannesburg at the time, Astor Mansions, one of Joburg’s first skyscrapers, and Beacon Royale flats (1934), at the bottom of Yeoville on Louis Botha Avenue.
Maurice Cowen (1990) contributed to the decorative facades of many of Joburg’s best-known schools, including Parktown Girls and Jeppe Boys, and the panels gracing 1930s-era Dunvegan Chambers, Roehampton Court, Shakespeare House, and Broadcast House in the Johannesburg CBD. The latter was the original home of the South African Broadcasting Corporation. The crazy antennae designed for the top of this building didn’t have any real function, McKechnie said, though it copied the antennae on top of the BBC, and there was briefly the idea of using it to dock airships.
Another Wits graduate, Leopold Grinker (1973), was an anti-establishment figure who disliked modernism. Grinker’s Normandie Court (1937) in Delvers Street, Newtown, combines art deco with his obsession with the streamlined form of ships. So too does Daventry Court in Killarney (also built in the 1930s), which was Killarney’s first modern block of flats.
Harold Leroith (also a Wits’ alma mater) is best known for designing Temple Emanuel in Parktown (1954). This minimalist, modern building has concrete recesses which make it sculptural and provide shade for its windows. It also shows concern for materials like stone and face brick.
Leroith also designed Redoma Court, which architects consider one of Johannesburg’s best buildings, and the iconic, shiplike San Remo (1937) Both are sadly in a dilapidated state in Yeoville.
Monty Sack, an architect and artist and another Wits graduate, (2009), incorporated the work of artists in Killarney Hills built on top of Killarney Ridge, built to house actors for the studio of American financier Isidore Schlesinger.
Sidney Abramowitch (2016) passionately lobbied to save Joburg’s historical buildings such as the Markham Building, and is known for designing Innes Chambers in 1963, now used by the National Prosecuting Authority. This unusual building with Y-shaped columns representing the scales of justice, was covered with mosaics, which recently had to be painstakingly restored.
Lastly, the tour touched on the work of Gerald Gordon (2016), also a Wits graduate, who the group described as “an outstanding brain who was unable to limit himself to any single factor”. Gordon, who incubated many of South Africa’s best-known architects in his many years of lecturing at Wits, is best known for designing mountain houses on Linksfield Ridge, such as 7 New Mountain Road (early 70s), which literally cling to the edges of cliffs.
He’s also known for developing a new construction method he named “thin-skin architecture” which uses no bricks and is extremely strong because of its monocoque construction (a type of construction used in cars and aeroplanes).
Like many others, the brilliance and bravery of these Jewish architects leaves a legacy that can’t be eradicated.
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