Under the leadership of Professor Ed Rybicki, the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Biopharming Research Unit will be assisting in the production of diagnostic reagents for COVID-19 testing kits, thanks to recently received government funding.

As South Africa prepares for its COVID-19 peak, several funding awards have been given to local companies, researchers and organisations to ramp up the country’s ability to produce testing kits and locally developed reagents.

According to UCT News, reagents are chemical substances which are used in lab settings to test patient swabs for COVID-19.

UCT’s BRU or Department of Molecular and Cell Biology was one of only three applicants awarded funding to boost COVID-19 testing and reagent support.

South Africa currently sources its reagents from international companies and the ability to produce these locally would help reduce the supply bottleneck and enable tests to be rolled out faster.

“Increasing global demand, fluctuating exchange rates and limited transport options are affecting the supply – resulting in an urgent need to source these components locally,” said Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, Blade Nzimande.

Achieving a reliable local producer would mean significantly cheaper tests and reduce the overall turn around of the process significantly. This will also have knock-on effects on the country’s ability to trace contacts faster and stem the spread of the virus.

Reagents are an important part of testing kits and require careful and attentive production to ensure reliable results.

To produce reagents scientists need access to DNA and RNA, the funding will make the production of stable synthetic DNA and RNA at UCT’s BRU possible.

“We are developing a positive control RNA molecule to be used in nucleic acid detection kits to confirm that the specific test is working as it should,” explains Professor Ed Rybicki. “To that end, we need something that contains all the sequences that people are using for a variety of virus RNA detection kits.”

According to Rybicki, the lab will begin experimental production within a few weeks and the team will be optimising testing conditions, while working with partners from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and CapeBio Ltd.

“This was the only award to UCT in this current emergency funding scheme, which throws quite a large spotlight on us – and also increases the pressure to succeed in what we promised to do,” said Rybicki.

He is hopeful that the success of the project will lead to establishing new technologies at UCT that can be used in a variety of similar products, even future vaccines for emerging viruses.

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Aimee Pace

Aimee is an avid gamer, enthusiastic yogi and animal lover. Addicted to anime, coffee and plant-based meals. Current favourite pastimes include, sewing and learning Japanese.