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National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)

Dr Boitumelo Semete-Makokotlela

Dr Boitumelo Semete-Makokotlela

Staring a pandemic down …  and winning 

Imagine embarking on the role of CEO of a country’s health products regulatory authority, and taking office just a couple of months before a global pandemic struck? That was the challenge placed before Dr Boitumelo Semete-Makokotlela, who joined the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) in January 2020. 

“I had to remain calm amid all the storms and had to learn to become comfortable making decisions based on the facts I had at the time — mindful that the rate of new information available changed daily in the early days of the pandemic,” she says. “I leaned on the resilience I had learned in my efforts as an amateur triathlete, knowing well that I had to keep going and remain resolute on decisions made, despite threats and attacks from political parties and civil society, both professionally and personally,” explains Semete-Makokotlela.   

Testament to her drive and passion for getting technologies to the public, Semete-Makokotlela, as the head of SAHPRA, successfully led the authorisation of several COVID-19 diagnostic tests, vaccines and therapies to ensure that the regulator was an enabler.

To be able to implement these tests expeditiously, she had to champion collaboration with other regulators across the globe, such as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the European Medicines Agency, Health Canada, the Namibian Authority and the Ghana Food and Drug Authority (FDA), to name but a few. A partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO) was also critical in bringing best practices to the execution of regulatory oversight for the COVID-19-related health products. 

She also had to champion the development of an emergency use authorisation mechanism for the public health emergency, which was not available at the time. Furthermore, collaborations with local academic institutions and others such as  the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS), the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) highly benefited due to the efforts of SAHPRA. Her ability to network and lead collaborations enabled SAHPRA to access these relationships with the urgency required. 

Capacity building is at the heart of Semete-Makokotlela’s efforts, as she believes in empowering the next generation of future leaders. She has championed the appointment of younger external evaluators to support SAHPRA’s regulatory processes, and in 2020, SAHPRA appointed 32 new young external evaluators from various institutions, as well as re-appointing 106 evaluators.  

Moreover, there was a strong focus on appointing black and female external evaluators. In 2021, together with other stakeholders, Semete-Makokotlela implemented a regulatory clinical assessor training with faculty members from across the world. This programme was not limited to SAHPRA but included assessors from the Medicines Control Authority of Zimbabwe and the Ghana FDA. 

Before joining SAHPRA, Semete-Makokotlela was at the pinnacle of the establishment of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR’s) Innovation Hub’s Biotech Incubator, which housed and supported approximately 50 biotech companies. — Kerry Haggard

Read the special Mail & Guardian supplement about all the NSTF-South32 Award winners.

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