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Glenda Gray’s quest for lifesaving vaccines

Professor Glenda Gray, who is seeing out the final months of her 10-year term at the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), is looking forward to her next chapter, where she will be immersing herself in HIV and infectious disease vaccinology, among other research.

Gray, a professor in the School of Clinical Medicine at Wits University and internationally acclaimed for her research in HIV vaccines and activism to stop mother-to-child transmission of HIV, recently announced she would be stepping down from her role as president and chief executive of the SAMRC when her term ends in February 2024.

The trained paediatrician has been with the organisation for a decade, reports Daily Maverick, and says most of her posts have been “10-year jobs”.

“I was the CEO of the prenatal HIV research unit for 10 years and I remained part of that unit. I still have grants and staff I work with at the perinatal HIV research unit at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. Then I’ve been in this job for 10 years… that’s really been the best job of my life. Now I’m looking forward to another 10 years doing impactful research and going back to science.

“There’s a huge opportunity to be enrolled in vaccine discovery, vaccine manufacturing and vaccine science. I will be focused on HIV vaccines, and vaccine discovery also for infectious diseases, pandemic preparedness, and positioning the country to meet the challenges of emerging problems,” she says.

Gray was a principal investigator for the Sisonke trial and study, along with Professor Linda-Gail Bekker, executive director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre at the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine. As part of the Sisonke trial they were pivotal in securing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for 500 000 frontline healthcare workers in early 2021.

This was when the Covid-19 pandemic was raging and death, fear and uncertainty marked our every day. Getting shots into the arms of healthcare workers was crucial.

Even as a child, Gray’s instincts were to help and heal. She grew up the fifth of six children in Boksburg, and was always the one who took home stray dogs.

Her dad, who worked for the mines on the East Rand, died when she was 16. The family was poor and sometimes groceries didn’t stretch to the end of the month, she remembers. Her government school was underfunded and it was rare that someone with aspirations to get into medical school made it.

“Coming from a simple background and understanding poverty gives you some access to humanity. Growing up in a family that encouraged education also made a difference and being conscientised about apartheid and becoming politicised as a teenager – with a brother at Wits who was part of Nusas (National Union of South African Students) – also helped,” she says.

But finding her humanity came with being a young doctor working in wards in a time of apartheid segregation. It cemented her love for her profession, as well as her activism and need to act.

In 1993, as a young graduate from Wits University, based at then Baragwanath Hospital, she started seeing the first HIV-positive babies being admitted. Children were dying and Gray recounts the dread as one in two babies was being born HIV positive and there was no medical intervention to save them.

“Any loss of life is traumatic, but losing a child and being with grieving parents impacts you greatly,” she says.

It led her and colleague James McIntyre to establish the perinatal HIV Clinic at Bara in 1996 and also led to her now lifelong research in a quest to develop an HIV vaccine.

In a time of Aids denialism and even before HIV was recorded as a cause of death, the clinic’s work was deemed subversive, she remembers. But it stood as pushback against the government’s devastating ostrich approach to the disease.

In a reflection piece she and McIntryre wrote for Wits University in 2016, they recounted the controversy they caused, also the political interference in attempts to stop their research and block funding. They were also demonised by Thabo Mbeki, who openly slated the HIV activists and scientists.

But they didn’t relent. Their work made the clinic at Bara one of the first public-sector sites to conduct antiretroviral treatment trials in adults and children, thereby making the lifesaving treatment available to people in Soweto in the 1990s.

It would, however, be the moment when ARVs were finally rolled out in 2004 and people no longer died from HIV that she says was “the single most profound experience I’ve had in my life”.

She tells of living through the so-called Lazarus effect at a Soweto clinic she helped run at the time. “From being a place with stretchers, wheelchairs and oxygen tanks, there were suddenly people standing up and walking around. There were children who would lie on benches too sick to go to school but then on treatment you’d see them colouring in, getting fatter, laughing and feeling joy,” she says.

This preciousness of life and the right to have a fighting chance to live made Gray a health activist and an outspoken patient advocate.

It continues to land her in hot water with Health Department bureaucrats sometimes, and it’s also led to her being muzzled. Most recently there was the backlash from her comments about the severity of lockdown rules adding to a spike in malnutrition in children that she picked up at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital during the pandemic.

“In my provocative nature I do shoot from the hip and it can sometimes get me into trouble, but it is a response that comes from instinct and feeling angry at the injustice of the system,” she says.

Bullying and sexism

Gray, though, has also learnt that high-profile roles come with a poisonous whiff of politicking. There’s also bullying and sexism, leading to what she calls the “leaky pipeline”. It diverts women scientists to drip into technical jobs over leadership roles.

And Gray’s role is very high-profile. She was named among TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2017 and received the Order of the Baobab in 2012, among a clutch of accolades and awards.

“In leadership roles you do come in for a lot of criticism and it’s a very patriarchal arena. There’s subliminal bullying and biases against women. Think how even calling a woman a ‘career-woman’ is stigmatising – you hardly even hear of a man being referred to as a ‘career man’,” she says.

The role at the SAMRC, Gray says, was one to which she was literally married – one that’s demanded her all and that she’s regarded as a service to the country.

But it paid off. With Gray at the helm, the SAMRC has had consecutive clean audits. She’s also been credited for transforming grant funding for young scientists, black scientists and women scientists, and establishing key partnerships and collaborations to advance science research.

“I regret… that there is never enough time. Even though I leave the SAMRC on a good financial footing I will always have wished to have achieved more funding for research,” she says.

But now it needs new blood, she adds. Agendas are shifting, too, in a changed world. There are health impacts from the climate crisis, coming pandemics, and the ticking time bomb of non-communicable diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, for which to prepare.

The mother of three – two daughters and a son, aged 18, 26 and 30 – says building up the next generations means her role as active mentor has deepened, and she is hopeful they will add to finding solutions for a new world.

For now, though, she can’t wait to head towards new vaccine research horizons.

 

Daily Maverick article – Glenda Gray, the tiny yellow elephant and the search for lifesaving vaccines (Open access)

 

See more from MedicalBrief archives:

 

Professor Glenda Gray to step down as SAMRC head

 

MRC drops ‘impulsive and high-handed’ investigation into Prof Gray

 

Major SAMRC study identifies top disease and death risk factors

 

J&J booster 84% effective against hospitalisation — Sisonke 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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