Start main page content

Welcome to Virology

- Beth Amato - FHS Communications

The field of virology has become increasingly relevant worldwide, particularly with the advent of novel viruses, such as COVID-19. These viruses have devastating effects, impacting social, economic and political systems. Intersecting causes, including poverty, inequality, climate change and the state of healthcare systems, have worsened the impacts of viruses such as SARS, H1N1, influenza and Nipah.  Moreover, viruses such as Ebola and West Nile strains have re-emerged. In the Global South, these coincide with HIV and Aids and tuberculosis. The latter two remain leading causes of mortality. New vaccines, as well as testing and diagnostic tools, are needed, particularly in resource-constrained settings.  

Figure 1: A virologist inspects a sample

Researchers at the University of Witwatersrand provide innovative clinical and diagnostic services in virology. The area offers exciting opportunities for research and undergraduate and postgraduate studies.  The university’s location in a major urban node with multiple health concerns allows for developing innovative diagnostic methods for rapidly identifying emerging and re-emerging viral pathogens in national, regional, and global design.

The dedicated virology department’s laboratory investigates and diagnoses viral infectious diseases through serological and PCR-based tests. The division is a joint initiative with the National Health Laboratory Services, providing diagnostic and consultative services to the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital (CMJAH), Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital, Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, and other surrounding hospitals and clinics. In response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in 2020, several members of the department have actively contributed their virological expertise in pivotal capacities, including the Ministerial Advisory Group, SAHPRA, Covid-19 Working Groups, as well as participation in the National Genomics Surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 consortium.

Head of Division Professor Raveen Parboosing

Professor Raveen Parboosing graduated from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and was later admitted into the Fellowship of the College of Pathologists of South Africa in 2003. Professor Parboosing is actively involved in undergraduate and postgraduate education, supervising 40 students pursuing their studies.

His research interests are clinical virology, epidemiology, drug discovery and nanotechnology. Professor Parboosing completed a Masters in Epidemiology at Columbia University in New York. He has worked closely with the researchers in the Discipline of Pharmaceutical Sciences at UKZN to pursue new ways to treat HIV and other pathogens. In recognition of his extensive work, he was awarded the 2023 Merck medal by the South African Chemical Institute.

Professor Parboosing’s PhD examined emerging nanotechnology, particularly in treating HIV. Nanotechnology is a fairly new discipline that involves understanding, designing, engineering, and fabricating materials at the atomic and molecular levels. The current HIV and Aids treatment modality includes a drug combination to work on different mechanisms. While this treatment has been a remarkable success, challenges remain. The daily requirement to take medication over a lifetime often results in poor patient compliance and treatment adherence. This leads to ineffective drug levels in the body and further virus replication. Drug resistance occurs, mainly caused by the high genetic diversity of HIV-1 and its continuous mutation.

Figure 2: Professor Raveen Parboosing, Head of the Division of Virology in the School of Pathology

As latent HIV cells are usually concentrated in specific anatomic sites, there is a need to explore new approaches for developing non-toxic, lower-dosage treatment modalities that provide sustained dosing coverage and effectively eradicate the virus without lifetime treatments.

The virology team’s significant achievements in public health

Wits scientists, Drs Florette Treurnicht, Jinal Bhiman, Catherine Scheepers and Mrs Ramuth Magalutcheemee, from the Department of Virology in the School of Pathology, made significant contributions to SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 genomics surveillance in South Africa.

Figure 3: Professor Florette Treurnicht

 A continent-wide collaboration on genomics surveillance shows the power of African science and how most COVID-19 variants were introduced into Africa. More than 300 authors from Africa and elsewhere collaborated on this study, forming the largest consortium of African scientists and public health institutions working to support data-driven public health responses in Africa.