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Motswana woman enhancing HIV/AIDS cure research

Thirty years on, the cure for HIV/AIDS remains elusive, but researchers from various corners of the world are making enormous efforts and as the quest ensues, one Motswana woman, Dr Catherine Koofhethile, an immunologist, is in the thick of things and among those in the forefront to enhancing HIV/AIDS Cure research, ANGELA MDLALANI writes.

Despite the fact that both the vaccine and cure for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) have eluded the researchers’ inquisitive eye for three decades now, Dr. Catherine Koofhethile believes that a breakthrough for an HIV cure is nigh.
Having spent almost all her career life in HIV research, Koofhethile is of the strong view that more focus should be placed on cure research.

During her PhD studies, her research focussed more on the understanding  of the mechanisms of HIV control during the chronic stage of infection but the turning point was in 2014 when she was nominated to attend the 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate (Medicine and Physiology) meeting in Germany. There, she met and interviewed the esteemed Professor Barré-Sinoussi who received a Nobel Prize for co-discovery of HIV.

“That was big for me, as I was fortunate enough to be meeting this woman who has taken great strides in HIV work. We discussed a variety of topics with regards to HIV research. And when she gave her talk, she encouraged work towards cure research. Her talk motivated me and pushed me to think about having my post-PhD career be focused on cure research.” 

Further, she was propelled by revelations by Prof Barre-Sinoussi’s assertion that she had interacted with HIV infected people who had revealed that they were tired of taking medication and wanted to be cured. Today, Koofhethile is based in the United States in Boston, Massachussets at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. Under the mentorship of Professor Max Essex and Dr. Vladimir Novitsky, she still researches on HIV.

Prof. Essex is among HIV experts who have been researching on HIV since the beginning of the epidemic. Currently, Koofhethile’s research focuses on understanding the architecture; size and structure of the proviral reservoir in HIV infected individuals undertaking antiretroviral treatment (ART) in Botswana.

She uses a combination of Immunological and Virological assays to monitor proviral reservoir in HIV infected individuals. She works in collaboration with a local Investigator, Dr. Sikhulile Moyo, a Virologist based at Botswana Havard AIDS Institute Partnership (BHP) in Botswana where she also holds a Research Associate position. Here, she is actively involved with research and also mentors and supervises some of the upcoming researchers and students who are attached at the lab.

“When HIV infects the cells, mostly CD4+ T cells, the majority of these infected cells eventually die but only a small proportion go in to a ‘resting state’ creating what we call ‘reservoir’. This is a situation where by the virus can sort of hide in different parts of the body. The reservoir sites can be in tissues such as the lymph nodes and spread across the body including central nervous system and the gastrointestinal track. This reservoir is the major obstacle to finding a cure for HIV,” she revealed.

“My current research therefore is focused on trying to understand this reservoir. In order to completely eradicate the virus from the body, we must eliminate the reservoir but in order to get rid of the reservoir, there is need to understand its dynamics.” 

Just last month, Koofhethile flew into the country and gave her first ever Public Lecture at the University of Botswana. And fittingly, it was hosted in her homeland. The Public Lecture addressed her previous PhD and current post doctoral research work, which she revealed to this publication, was going well. She also gave a summary of the current global HIV cure research – an update of where we are in terms of finding a cure.

The public lecture was well attended, including by her family who got to see firsthand the kind of work she does, since she is not based in Botswana. “It was very humbling to see my family and friends in the audience; they have greatly supported me throughout my career. And for them to see my progress meant a lot to me. They now understand the kind of work I am involved in and are very proud.”

The current study, she and Dr. Moyo started last year November will be completed hopefully at the end of this year (2018). The study involves teenagers who were born with HIV, started ART soon after diagnosis and have been on therapy for many years. “It is a very important project that will give us a better understanding of  the HIV reservoir and enhance HIV cure research. We are still recruiting for this study but already I am hopeful about it,” she said.

The making of the great Doctor

Koofhethile has almost always known she would end up in science. She grew up at a time when HIV had just been discovered, and the stigma and fear of AIDS was rife. She would go on to hear more about this monstrosity at school, although not much was known about the disease then. So curious was the young Koofhethile that she at that young age took a life decision that she would grow up to one day help end that epidemic.

Fast forward to some years later, now a qualified microbiologist and immunologist, the Harvard Post-doc Fellow is among those at the forefront of the worldwide effort working towards HIV cure research. Right from her primary school days, she had always performed well in Mathematics and Science, it was no surprise then when after the Junior Certificate she went on to do Pure Sciences and Add Maths.

She proceeded to do her Tirelo Sechaba (National Service) at the Botswana National Youth Council as an Admin Assistant and occassional peer educator on HIV/AIDS before proceeding to do her first year at the University of Botswana. She spent only her foundation year (formely known as BSc Part 1) at UB and she was then offered a scholarship for a four-year Bachelor of Science Degree with Honours in Medical Microbiology at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom.

Upon graduating, she returned home and was offered a job at BHP as a Fogarty Fellow. After 2 years, she decided to go back to read for her Masters Degree in Immunology at the University of Birmingham, still in the UK, albeit this time as a self sponsored student. “My family contributed a lot towards my school fees and upkeep and I’ll forever be grateful for their unconditional support,” said Koofhethile.

All along, she was itching to get her hands on HIV research, but there were no dedicated research projects on HIV. Eventually, after her second degree, she decided to contact a Professor at Oxford University who was only impressed she would want to work with HIV research. The Professor in question is Phillip Goulder, whose work has had a major impact in the field of HIV research throughout the world. A renowned paediatrician and researcher, he is lauded for his great contributions towards HIV research.

Dr. Koofhethile spent 2 and half years at Prof. Goulder’s lab, working as a Graduate Research Assistant. “My time at the Goulder lab was fulfilling in many ways. Most of my research techniques I employ in my HIV research were learnt from the Goulder lab,” she said in an interview. She would want to continue studying under Goulder’s mentorship, but this time in Africa, at the “at the epi-centre of the epidemic”.

“During my time at Oxford, I already knew I wanted to proceed to a PhD and that I wanted to study in South Africa under the mentorship of both Prof. Goulder and Prof. Thumbi Ndung’u who used to work in Botswana. And I knew both professors would be fantastic mentors since they are experts in the field of HIV research.” In 1998, Goulder and some colleagues founded a state-of-the-art lab at the University of Kwazulu Natal (UKZN), in Durban South Africa, the university Koofhethile had in mind for her PhD.

“It really made sense for me to study in Africa than elsewhere because we are the hardest hit by HIV. When at home, you get to experience how people affected relate with the research,” she highlighted further. So, she decided to take up her studies, focusing on the Immunology of HIV. “I was basically trying to understand why some people get infected and do not fall sick and while some get infected and their health deteriorates very fast.”

Her PhD research entitled “Protective HLA Class I Alleles: Investigation of Viral Control and Lack of Control in Chronic HIV-1 Subtype C infection,” in fact, has brought scientists a step closer to understanding the phenomenon whereby a rare group of individuals control HIV-1 infection without antiretroviral therapy.

Her PhD studies were supported through scholarship from the Organisation for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) and partly by some of Prof. Ndung’u’s grants. The OWSD is a non-profit making entity whose objective is to strengthen women scientists’ role in the development process and promoting their representation in scientific and technological leadership. 

Returning home?

As fulfilling as her work has been thus far, Koofhethile harbours plans to return home and do more with regards to HIV research, women’s development and science development. However, she believes that there is a great number of women involved in science and research in Botswana, but they are not celebrated enough. So, we need to celebrate these wonderful women in science in order to make science careers more attractive to the young girls.

This will increase the Global numbers of women in science. We also need our government to direct funding towards basic science research in Botswana to allow us to do research in our own country as Batswana and solve problems affecting us as a nation,” she asserted. She envisions an Africa that would be the hub of research, science and technology and be able to attract more research funding.

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UDC founder warns against merger

19th October 2020
Ex UDC Convener: Mpotokwane

Lebang Mpotokwane, one of the conveners who presided over the opposition cooperation talks that resulted in the formation of the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), has advised against changing the current umbrella model in favour of a merger as proposed by others.

The Botswana Congress Party (BCP) leader, Dumelang Saleshando recently went public to propose that UDC should consider merging of all opposition parties, including Alliance for Progressives (AP) and Botswana Patriotic Front (BNF).

Saleshando has been vehemently opposed by Botswana National Front (BNF), which is in favour of maintaining the current model.  BNF’s position has been favoured by the founding father of UDC, who warned that it will be too early to ditch the current model.

“UDC should be well developed to promote the spirit of togetherness on members and the members should be taught so that the merger is developed gradually. They should approach it cautiously. If they feel they are ready, they can, but it would not be a good idea,” Mpotokwane told WeekendPost this week.

Mpotokwane and Emang Maphanyane are the two men who have since 2003 began a long journey of uniting opposition parties in a bid to dethrone the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BCP) as they felt it needed a strong opposition to avoid complacency.

Tonota born Mpotokwane is however disappointed on how they have been ejected from participating in the last edition of talks ahead of the 2019 general elections in which BCP was brought on board.  However, despite the ejection, Mpotokwane is not resentful to the opposition collective.

He said the vision of opposition unity was to ultimately merge the opposition parties but he believes time has not arrived yet to pursue that path. “The bigger picture was a total merger and we agreed that with three independent parties, members might be against merger eventuality so the current model should be used until a point where they are now together for as long as possible,” he said.

“UDC should gradually perform better in elections and gain confidence. They should not rush the merger. We have been meeting since 2003, but if they rush it might cause endless problems. If they are ready they can anyway,” he advised. For now the constituent parties of the umbrella have been exchanging salvos with others (BCP and BNF).

“There are good reasons for and against merging the parties. Personally, I am in favour of merging the parties (including AP and BPF) into a single formation but I know it’s a complex mission that will have its own challenges,” Saleshando said when he made his position known a week ago.

“Good luck to those advocating for a merger, it will be interesting to observe the tactics they will use to lure the BPF into a merger,” former BNF councillor for Borakalalo Ward and former BNF Youth League Secretary General, Arafat Khan, opined in relation to BCP’s proposed position.

Mpotokwane, who is currently out in the cold from the UDC since he was ejected from the party’s NEC in 2017, said the current bickering and the expected negotiations with other parties need the presence of conveners.

“We did not belong to any party as conveners so we were objective in our submissions. If party propose any progressive idea we will support, if it is not we will not, so I would agree that even now conveners might be key for neutrality to avoid biasness,” he observed. Despite being abandoned, Mpotokwane said he will always be around to assist if at all he is needed.

“If they want help I will be there, I have always been clear about it, but surely I will ask few questions before accepting that role,” he said. UDC is expected to begin cooperation talks with both AP and BPF either this week or next weekend for both upcoming bye-elections (halted by Covid-19) and 2024 general elections and it is revealed that there will be no conveners this time around.

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BDP attaches Boko’s property

19th October 2020
DUMA BOKO

The Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) moved through its lawyers to attach the property of Umbrella for Democratic (UDC) President Duma Boko and other former parliamentary contestants who failed in their court bid to overturn the 2019 general elections in 14 constituencies.

WeekendPost has established that this week, Deputy Sheriffs were commissioned by Bogopa Manewe Tobedza and Company who represented the BDP, to attach the properties of UDC elections contents in a bid to recover costs.  High Court has issued a writ of execution against all petitioners, a process that has set in motion the cost recovery measures.

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COVID-19 exposes decay in the education system

19th October 2020
Education Systm

Botswana Sectors of Teachers Union (BOSETU) says COVID-19 as a pandemic has negatively affected the education sector by deeply disrupting the education system. The intermittent lockdowns have resulted in the halting of teaching and learning in schools.

The union indicated that the education system was caught napping and badly exposed when it came to the use of Information System (IT), technological platforms and issues of digitalisation.

“COVID-19 exposed glaring inefficiencies and deficiencies when it came to the use of ITC in schools. In view of the foregoing, we challenge government as BOSETU to invest in school ITC, technology and digitalization,” says BOSETU President Kinston Radikolo during a press conference on Tuesday.

As a consequence, the union is calling on government to prioritise education in her budgeting to provide technological infrastructure and equipment including provision of tablets to students and teachers.

“Government should invest vigorously in internet connectivity in schools and teacher’s residences if the concept of flexi-hours and virtual learning were to be achieved and have desired results,” Radikolo said.

Radikolo told journalists that COVID-19 is likely to negatively affect final year results saying that the students would sit for the final examinations having not covered enough ground in terms of curriculum coverage.

“This is so because there wasn’t any catch up plan that was put in place to recover the lost time by students. We warn that this year’s final examination results would dwindle,” he said.

The Union, which is an affiliate of Botswana Federation of Public, Private and Parastatal Union (BOFEPUSU), also indicated that COVID-19’s presence as a pandemic has complicated the role of a teacher in a school environment, saying a teacher’s role has not only transcended beyond just facilitating teaching and learning, but rather, a teacher in this COVID-19 era, is also called upon to enforce the COVID-19 preventative protocols in the school environment.

“This is an additional role in the duty of a teacher that needs to be recognized by the employers. Teachers by virtue of working in a congested school environment have become highly exposed and vulnerable to COVID-19, hence the reason why BOSETU would like teachers to be regarded as the frontline workers with respect to COVID-19,” says Radikolo.

BOSETU noted that the pandemic has in large scales found its way into most of the school environments, as in thus far more than 50 schools have been affected by COVID-19. The Union says this is quite a worrying phenomenon.

“As we indicated before when we queried that schools were not ready for re-opening, it has now come to pass that our fears were not far-fetched. This goes out to tell that there is deficiency in our schools when it comes to putting in place preventative protocols. In our schools, hygiene is compromised by mere absence of sanitizers, few hand-washing stations, absence of social distancing in classes,” the Union leader said.

Furthermore, Radikolo stressed that the shifting system drastically increased the workload for teachers especially in secondary schools. He says teachers in these schools experience very high loads to an extent that some of them end up teaching up to sixty four periods per week, adding that this has not only fatigued teachers, but has also negatively affected their performance and the quality of teaching.

In what the Union sees as failure to uphold and honour collective agreements by government, owing to the shift system introduced at primary schools, government is still in some instances refusing to honour an agreement with the Unions to hire more teachers to take up the extra classes.

“BOSETU notes with disgruntlement the use of pre-school teachers to teach in the mainstream schools with due regard for their specific areas of training and their job descriptions. This in our view is a variation of the terms of employment of the said teachers,” says Radikolo.

The Union has called on government to forthwith remedy this situation and hire more teachers to alleviate this otherwise unhealthy situation. BOSETU also expressed concerns of some school administrators who continuously run institutions with iron fists and in a totalitarian way.

“We have a few such hot spot schools which the Union has brought to attention the Ministry officials such as Maoka JSS, Artesia JSS, and Dukwi JSS. We are worried that the Ministry becomes sluggish in taking action against such errant school administration. In instances where action is taken, such school administrators are transferred and rotated around schools.”

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