Professor Shenuka Singh.

Dentistry Academic Invited to Develop WHO Tool for Research Ethics Oversight Benchmarking

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Professor Shenuka Singh of UKZN’s Dentistry Discipline has been invited by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be a member of a working group to develop a tool for benchmarking of research ethics oversight.

The invitation came from the WHO’s Regulation and Safety (REG) Unit and the Health Ethics and Governance (HEG) Unit.

‘This was totally unexpected,’ said Singh. ‘It is indeed an honour to be invited by the units in WHO to be part of a consultation group to develop the tool.’

Singh is the only South African in the group which comprises between 16 and 20 members who meet once a week for virtual consultation sessions.

The tool will be designed to include all entities/bodies/agencies involved in ethical oversight for health related research, including research ethics committees, institutions involved in research, regulatory bodies that have research oversight responsibilities, and other similar agencies.

‘The purpose of this initiative is to ensure that human research participants and their collected data – including biospecimens – are adequately protected and that their rights, dignity and privacy are upheld,’ said Singh. ‘The developed tool will have specific indicators and sub-indicators that are measurable so as to determine if the identified entity is functioning in a manner that will maximise its mandate which is to ensure the protection of interests and rights of people participating in health research.’

The tool is also intended to build capacity, for example, in research ethics committees, so that any identified gaps can be addressed. ‘Such a tool is particularly relevant in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic where a rapid turnaround time is expected for health-related research, such as in clinical trials. At the same time, the ethics oversight measures for participant protection cannot be ignored or underscored,’ said Singh.

A Deputy Chair in the Biomedical Research Ethics Committee at UKZN (BREC) and a member of the Human Sciences Research Ethics Committee (HSRC), Singh is also the Chair of the Norms and Standards Committee within the National Research Ethics Council of South Africa (NHREC).

NHREC is the regulatory oversight body for research ethics in the country and advises the Minister of Health on research ethics related matters, while the Norms and Standards Committee is responsible for developing and reviewing national guidelines within NHREC for ethical research practice in South Africa.

All appointments on NHREC are made by the Minster of Health.

Singh, who was promoted to full professor in the Discipline of Dentistry in 2020 and is actively involved in research and postgraduate research supervision, is also the EXCO Secretary for the South African division of the International Association of Dental Research (IADR).

Words: Nombuso Dlamini

Photograph: Supplied