Scientists from UKZN’s College of Health Sciences (CHS) and the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science (CAES) – in collaboration with researchers at Stellenbosch University – have been awarded a prestigious R40 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States.
The NIH R01 grant, often considered the “gold standard” for major research funding, will cover the implementation of a five-year investigation to establish the spatial, temporal and demographic shifts in new HIV infection patterns in the post-COVID era and design new intervention strategies. This collaborative study includes scientists from UKZN, Stellenbosch University, the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI), the University of Lincoln, the University of Heidelberg, the University of Washington, New York University and the University of Cincinnati.
In addition, the research team will capacitate UKZN doctoral and other postgraduate students in cutting-edge HIV population science as was achieved with the previous four NIH R01 grants.
Principal Investigator (PI) of the study is Professor Frank Tanser, a South African infectious disease epidemiologist, an honorary professor at UKZN, professor at the School of Data Science and Computational Thinking at Stellenbosch University and a Senior Faculty Member at AHRI. The local PI is Professor Henry Mwambi of UKZN’s School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science. They will be joined by Dr Andrew Tomita of the University’s School of Nursing and Public Health.
The study titled: The Changing Face of HIV in the Era of COVID-19, aims to establish the population shift in new HIV infection patterns during the pandemic era by leveraging the statistical power of over 20 years of population-based health data from the AHRI’s population-based HIV cohort in northern KwaZulu-Natal which is one of the largest HIV cohorts in the world.
The study will quantify the shifts in the spatial, temporal and demographic burden of the HIV incidence and underlying viral load patterns in KwaZulu-Natal. It will also investigate the change due to new HIV infections distribution in population following the shift towards Dolutegravir-based regimens (ie a new cost-effective drug enabling better treatment adherence) and the scale up of new prevention interventions such as the pre-exposure prophylaxis.
The study findings are essential for the design of future intervention programmes which will maximise HIV incidence reduction based on the dynamic needs of the most vulnerable sub-populations in rural areas. Said Tanser: ‘We are extremely excited and honoured to have been awarded this grant from the NIH. This is one of the very few settings in the world where we can measure dynamic changes in the burden of new HIV infections with a high degree of accuracy. We have a fantastic team in place and I’m confident that the findings from this work will allow us to take HIV preventions strategies to the next level and ultimately to make a massive difference to local populations who are still at high risk of infection from this terrible disease.’
Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the CHS Professor Busisiwe Ncama said: ‘I would like to congratulate the Principal Investigators, and the whole team for securing the NIH grant. This work is very important in helping the country understand the patterns of HIV infections in a rural area post-COVID-19, in order to shape future responses for infectious diseases. We wish you the very best as you embark on this important study.’
Words: MaryAnn Francis