One year after the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Novartis, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), Novartis reports that the collaboration is revealing significant latent potential for scientific discovery in South Africa.

A year after the signing of the three-year agreement, there are already signs that the goals of the MoU would be met. Novartis has since increased representation from disadvantaged universities in the Next Generation Scientist programme, healthcare provider workshops have been launched, 28 clinical trials at 163 sites are underway, and 29 emerging researchers from South Africa, Swaziland and Mauritius were also given a two-day in-depth workshop on effective grant-writing, to support their efforts to secure research grants.

As part of the skills building cooperation, over 80 doctors have been trained in research and publication skills as well as 120 scientists who were trained in Good Clinical Practice (GCP). There also has been technical assistance and scientific exchange at universities such as the University of Cape Town on key technology platforms.

Speaking during his first visit to Ghana, Kenya and South Africa in his new role, Novartis Global CEO, Vasant (Vas) Narasimhan, said the MoU had formalised Novartis’ ongoing investment in developing South African research capabilities, scientific cooperation and collaboration for capacity building and innovation. The MoU also aimed to establish a framework for potential cooperation on joint research programmes in selected communicable and non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

Novartis noted ahead of the signing that South Africa had the power to deliver more effective R&D. “There is a low volume of clinical research in Africa, with only 2% of global clinical trials taking place on the continent and only 1.2% excluding those conducted in South Africa and Egypt. But South Africa has the capability and capacity to become a research and innovation hub for Africa,” said CEO and Country President at Novartis South Africa, Dr Thomas Kowallik.

Dr Kowallik added that increasing clinical research skills had the potential for multiple positive knock-on effects to strengthen local healthcare systems, while innovation would attract further investment with positive outcomes for the economy and job creation.

Novartis employs 23,000 scientists worldwide and invests US$9 billion in R&D every year. Investing in scientific capability development is part of their integrated strategy to strengthen healthcare systems in middle/lower middle income countries.

Novartis expects this ongoing collaboration with the DST and SAMRC to build capability and potentially lead to breakthrough innovations stemming from South Africa.

“A key learning to date has been that previous efforts to build capacity have tended to focus on well-recognised academic facilities. In partnership with the DST and SAMRC, we have now been able to identify candidates and programmes in under-resourced facilities, where excellent work deserving of our support is being carried out. It has been encouraging to see the scope of research being taken in under-resourced facilities, and it has been gratifying for us being able to contribute to building capability and supporting these facilities,” said Narasimhan.

Narasimhan added that Novartis supports the government’s research agenda and is committed to further partnering with government and academic institutions across southern Africa.

“Novartis aims to support the creation of a hub for scientific research in South and Southern Africa; helping both to advance skills in this space and to increasing the availability of local clinical data relevant to the African continent,” said Narasimhan.

“South Africa clearly has the necessary talent and medical research potential. If more private sector stakeholders engaged in public-private partnerships such as our MoU, significant research and development capability could be developed in South Africa,” concluded Narasimhan.

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