Leading the charge: World-class scientist heads SA's Covid-19 response


As Health Minister Zweli Mkhize briefed the public on government's Covid-19 response on Monday, the man on his left, Professor Salim Abdool Karim, emerged as one of the most important faces in the Covid-19 response effort.

The internationally-acclaimed infectious diseases expert is well known in the scientific community, and many in civil society remember him as a key voice of reason during the height of the HIV/Aids epidemic in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

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Now, having been introduced to the public at large, Karim is "leading the team" of government's scientific advisors, according to Mkhize.

The minister explained on Monday night that government's response was informed by many scientists across scientific disciplines, and that this advice fed into the political decision-making process that ended with President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Government's response is broken up into three clusters:

-       The Ministerial Advisory Committee, led by Karim

-       The National Command Council

-       NatJoints 

Ministerial Advisory Committee

Mkhize explained that Karim was "leading the team" of experts who form the Ministerial Advisory Committee – a 45-member body currently advising government on how to combat Covid-19.

The committee includes some 20 professors from a variety of health, infectious diseases, epidemiology and other specialities. The team is responsible for guiding government's overall response to the Covid-19 epidemic.

Following his presentation on Monday night, Karim was referred to on social media as SA's answer to Dr Anthony Fauci, the United States' immunologist-in-chief. As head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Fauci has been outspoken in his criticism of the Trump administration's handling of Covid-19.

Karim's CV spans four universities and several institutions. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society. His most recent posting is that of director of the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa (Caprisa), based in Durban.

His other titles include Adjunct Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard University and Adjunct Professor of Medicine at Cornell University.

While Karim's reputation as an advisor to government on health matters is not new, his role became more formalised when he was tasked with heading up a 45-member ministerial task team, specifically dedicated to advising Mkhize.

Karim was among a prominent group of scientists who publicly said that HIV caused Aids, in direct contrast to the Thabo Mbeki administration's stance on the matter, according to an account by Bhekisisa's founder Mia Malan.

Karim was reportedly even rapped over the knuckles by former health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang for his views.


Karim is joined by a number of experts.

- Dr Glenda Gray, a specialist in mother-to-child transmission of HIV, is also the CEO and president of the South African Medical Research Council.

- Professor Koleka Mlisana, from the National Health Laboratory Service, heads the microbiology department at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and is a TB specialist.

- Dr Brian Williams is also an expert in TB and Aids prevention, who spent a decade at the World Health Organisation. He was also one of the founders of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis.

- Dr Natalie Mayet is the deputy incident manager for the Incident Response team, led by Dr Yogan Pillay, a deputy director general at the department of health. She is also the deputy director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).

- Dr Kerrigan McCarthy is a specialist pathologist who heads up the NICD's public health, surveillance and response department.

NCC and NatJoints

At a political level, government's response is led by the National Command Council (NCC), a body comprising Cabinet members from key portfolios impacted by the disease, such as home affairs, justice, correctional services and police.

This body is also chaired by Ramaphosa, and is the ultimate political decision-making body for government's response to Covid-19.

The National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (NatJoints), Mkhize explained, is a wide body of mainly government officials.

They are mainly directors general from various departments, but also include elements from law enforcement and other sectors of government. The provinces were also represented at this forum.

NatJoints is one of several bodies that advises the NCC and by extension, the president, on how the Covid-19 response should be handled.

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