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Gauteng universities consortium launch urban research nodes to inform response to Covid-19 hotspots

- Wits University

The South African Population Research Infrastructure Network (SAPRIN) has launched two new urban research nodes to improve response to Covid-19.

SAPRIN is a national research platform funded by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and hosted by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC)

The new Gauteng and Western Cape urban population research nodes are launched at a time when both provinces are identified as Covid-19 hotspots.

These two nodes, added to the Health and Demographic Surveillance System (HDSS), expand SAPRIN’s national research platform to a total of five.

“The two new urban nodes are expected to considerably strengthen the basis for conducting research and providing evidence for policy-making and research training,” says Wits Associate Professor Mark Collinson, co-director of SAPRIN along with Dr Kobus Herbst.

In Gauteng, the new node has been awarded to the Gauteng Research Triangle (GRT), a consortium which is a collaboration of the three research universities: University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Pretoria and the University of Johannesburg.

The planned sites in Gauteng are in Atteridgeville and Melusi in the north-western part of the Tshwane Metro, and in Hillbrow in the very centre of Johannesburg. The GRT will adopt a multidisciplinary approach to ensure the analysis of vital statistics, migration and other key data generated from multiple angles. Professor David Everatt leads the GRT.

“Our approach is not only to ensure the most accurate and quality vital statistics data possible, but to understand it in its specific urban context, including issues such as differing urban forms, inequality and the like”, says Everatt.

In the Western Cape, the Western Cape Department of Health leads a consortium comprising the University of Cape Town, University of Stellenbosch, University of the Western Cape, the South African Medical Research Council, Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and community-based organisations. Areas covered include Nomzamo and Bishop Lavis in the City of Cape Town metropole.

“We plan to embed the node in existing community health worker services as part of the community-oriented primary care approach. This will ensure alignment between surveillance activities conducted as part of service delivery, and those required to contribute to SAPRIN,” says Professor Andrew Boulle from the Cape Town Surveillance through Healthcare Action Research Project.

In future, SAPRIN will expand its network to seven nodes to include eThekwini. The expanded research network will cover an inclusive spectrum of the impoverished yet dynamically developing populations, and incorporate bi-directional migration flows linking poor, rural communities with urban centres.

SAPRIN and Covid-19

SAPRIN developed a surveillance protocol that was implemented within a month of the first case of Covid-19 reported in the country. The research involves ongoing telephonic interviews to screen for Covid-19 symptoms in more than 60 000 rural households in Mpumalanga, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal. SAPRIN will continue to monitor the demographic, social, health and socio-economic well-being of the entire study-population.

“The impact of Covid-19, and its related lockdown policies are being carefully observed, and this vital information is being fed back to policy makers and planners”, says Collinson.

The initiative had already contributed data to the HSRC’s assessment of the impact of the pandemic on households  and in future will provide more insights into the pandemic in South Africa, particularly in reference to its interaction with HIV and TB.

Collinson and Herbst are finalists in the NSTF-South 32 Research Awards in the Data for Research category. Their nomination recognises their work in the field of researching public health in rural areas using SAPRIN.


Established under the ambit of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap (SARIR), SAPRIN is a major investment in research infrastructure which aims to help South Africa respond to some of its biggest issues – including poverty, inequality, unemployment, lack of access to effective health care – and now to Covid-19.

In 2019, the Network released its first population dataset since its inception in 2017. The dataset monitors the health and wellbeing of people over time in order to gather new information on the situation of poorer South Africans. All data harvested by SAPRIN is to be tested to provide hard evidence to policy makers in order to influence programmes in the Departments of Health, Social Development, Home Affairs, Basic Education, and others.