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15 September 2021
Making Research Count: UWC's Research Week 2021 tackles COVID-19
Back in 2020, when the prophesied apocalypse started engulfing the planet, scientists and researchers were called upon to suit up as superheroes to save humanity. Many abandoned their life's work to understand and ultimately fight the deadly SARS-CoV-2 virus. Some even put their lives at risk.

However, much like any Stan Lee plot, large pockets of society has turned on them. Studies are pointing to mistrust of science and a lack of confidence in researchers due, in most part, to villains lurking on social media. The World Health Organization (WHO) has repeatedly warned that we are not only facing a pandemic but an "infodemic" driven by fake news and myths about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. It did not help that the likes of former US President Donald Trump undermined scientists and brazenly flouted health protocols.

But as the narrative goes, heroes will prevail – armed with facts; researchers are mobilising to fight back and indeed usher the world to safety. The best counter to dwindling confidence is how the global research community at universities has addressed COVID-19. 

At the tip of Africa, the University of the Western Cape (UWC) was recently ranked among the top 800 universities globally and is in joint 7th place of South Africa Universities in the Time Higher Education (THE) Global Impact Rankings for its role to combat the coronavirus. Since lockdown, just some of the highlights of our researchers include: 
  • Decoding The SARS-CoV-2 Genome: researchers from UWC's South African National Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI) helped sequence the first SARS-COV-2 genome in South Africa, providing a genetic "fingerprint" that can help us understand and contain the spread of COVID-19.
  • Isolating SA's First SARS-CoV-2 Lab Culture: South Africa grew its very first known laboratory isolate of SARS-Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) on 1 April 2020, courtesy of UWC's Dr Tasnim Suliman.
  • Modelling the spread of the disease: UWC's Nuclear Physics Professor Nico Orce, collaborated with international researchers to devise mathematical models of the evolution of the pandemic, keeping a close eye on how the model matched (and diverged from) reported virus patterns in a variety of countries. 
Our researchers have lived up to the university's endeavours of being an engaged institution attuned to South Africa's goal of making the best use of its talent pool and being globally competitive. It is in line with its desire to be a vibrant intellectual space where people engage with matters of real significance at the highest levels of competence. It is a role UWC wants to be widely recognised for. 

With South Africa's National Development Plan 2030 having spoken about moving to a knowledge-based economy, research and innovation are greatly important. As a leading research-led teaching and learning university, UWC plays a vital role in producing research and innovation with national and international impact in the training of postgraduate students. 

The university has always encouraged a multi-, inter-and cross-disciplinary approach to research, involving postgraduate students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers from various faculties and disciplines. It has embedded this approach by aligning its pillars of research to the 17 interlinked United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to find solutions to global challenges. This prepared us to confront the complex pandemic issues. To this end, all seven faculties at UWC – from Dentistry, Arts and Humanities, Law, Natural Sciences, Economic and Management Sciences, Community and Health Sciences and Education – have been involved in COVID-19 research. 

This month, UWC's annual Research Week will showcase how this research and innovation, together with its national and international partners, contributed to the advancement and wellbeing of society during this unprecedented time. 

This year, the theme of Research Week 2021 is 'The UWC Contribution to Fighting and Understanding the COVID-19 Pandemic'. Each Faculty will share its contribution to the fight against COVID-19 – research within the SDGs to "achieve a better and more sustainable future for all" during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This event will highlight our shared commitment to answering the most pressing questions of the pandemic, looking at the pandemic from all areas of society and drawing in knowledge from social sciences, humanities, medical, natural sciences, economic management and legal.
Topics include the impact of COVID-19 on food security, the dynamics around the local design and manufacturing of ventilators and masks and even waste reclaimers' role during the pandemic.

Researchers will present and discuss their work, thereby addressing many of the common COVID-19 myths and concerns. The four-day event – 28 September to 1 October – will also create a platform for engagement and active scholarship.

In her invitation for you to join UWC Research Week 2021, UWC Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, Prof José Frantz, said: "This moment in our history allows universities to make research count like never before. As we come to the end of our second year of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, we realise that the only constant is change. 

"The pandemic has forced us to evaluate and reconsider almost every aspect of our lives. Even before the crisis, research at UWC contributed to ensuring healthcare for all used an interdisciplinary approach to the challenge of food insecurity, to name but a few. As we continue to address the SDGs and respond to the challenges of COVID-19, we invite you to come and share ideas on how we can continue to make a difference in our communities."

Professor Burtram Fielding is the Director: Research Development and Principal Investigator: Molecular Biology and Virology Research Laboratory Department of Medical BioSciences, University of the Western Cape.