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Welcome to Wits RHI

Tackling Africa’s
Health Challenges
through science and innovation
Tackling Africa’s
Health Challenges
through science and innovation
Tackling Africa’s
Health Challenges
through science and innovation
Tackling Africa’s
Health Challenges
through science and innovation
Tackling Africa’s
Health Challenges
through science and innovation

 Our Leadership


Professor Helen Rees, Executive Director 


Francois Venter.jpgProfessor Helen Rees OBE is Founder and Executive Director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (Wits RHI) of the University of Witwatersrand, which is the university’s largest research entity, with a mandate for research, health systems strengthening and training. Wits RHI is a WHO and UNAIDS Collaborating Centre in reproductive health and HIV respectively and is also a South African Medical Research Council Collaborating Centre in HIV and TB.

Prof Rees is a Personal Professor in the Wits Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and an Honorary Professor in the Department of Clinical Research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of their Visiting Committee.  Prof Rees obtained her Medical Degree and Masters in Social and Political Sciences from New Hall College (now Murray Edwards College) at Cambridge University, and is now a Fellow of the College. She is an alumnus of Harvard Business School having completed the HBS Senior Executive Programme for Southern Africa. 

Prof Rees is internationally renowned as an expert in HIV prevention, reproductive health and vaccines. She has published more than 150 research papers, has delivered more than 200 invited plenary and keynote addresses, has chaired approximately 100 national and international scientific and policy committees, and contributed to the organisation of more than 100 conferences. Prof Rees is widely respected as a chairperson with a unique ability to lead and to link research to policy.  She serves on many national committees. She is the chair of the South African Medicines Control Council, Chair of the MCC EXCO, a member of South Africa’s National Advisory Group on Immunization and is a member of the National Health Data Advisory and Coordination Committee chairing the TB/HIV committee.  She is part of the National Department of Science and Technology panel reviewing South Africa’s science and technology and innovation institutional landscape.  Rees is a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the National Institute of Communicable Diseases. She is a globally respected researcher having led many HIV prevention, and sexual and reproductive health studies.  She was the Protocol Chair of the first SA microbicide network trial (FACTS 001), a Phase 3 trial of 1% tenofovir gel for HIV prevention, is a lead researcher on a newly initiated pan African study on HIV acquisition and contraception (ECHO), and is the Co-principal investigator in a study evaluating the feasibility of using ARVS for HIV prevention as pre-exposure prophylaxis and early treatment for female sex workers.  She is currently leading the development of Wits University’s Flagship Centre for Vaccinology together with Professor Shabir Madhi (RMPRU) and other senior Wits University Scientists. 


Prof Rees serves on numerous scientific committees and Boards including for WHO, UNAIDS, NIH, IAVI, GAVI, the Population Council and the Wellcome Trust. She is Chair of WHO’s African Regional Task Force on Immunization (TFI) and is immediate past chair of the World Health Organisation’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE), and was SAGE focal point for HPV, Rubella, and HIV vaccines, and vaccine use in humanitarian emergencies. She is a member of the SAGE Working Group on Measles and Rubella, and of the SAGE Working Group monitoring the progress of the Global Vaccine Action Plan, the chair of the WHO/PATH Advisory Committee on Maternal Influenza Immunisation, a member of the WHO’s Polio Research Group and of WHO’s Technical advisory Committee on RSV Vaccines.  She is the current Chair of the WHO SAGE Working Group on Ebola Vaccines, the TFI Working group on Ebola and she chaired the WHO ‘High Level Meeting’ on Ebola vaccines.’ She is the chair of the WHO’s International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on Polio as well as the WHO Committee currently reviewing the WHO's International Health Regulations. She chaired the WHO Committee on the STV Vaccine Roadmap and continues to advise WHO on STI vaccine development and on STI strategy. She is a board member of AVAC (a global HIV Prevention research advocacy organization) and serves on the US National Institute of Health’s Scientific Advisory Committee for the HIV Prevention Network, the Population Council’s Microbicide Advisory Committee, the WHO/UNAIDS Steering Committee on Pre-exposure prophylaxis, and the Center for HIV/AIDS Vaccine Immunology Immunogen Discovery (CHAVI-ID) Scientific Advisory Board.


In 2001 Prof Rees was made an Officer of the British Empire for her contribution to global health. Most recently she was awarded the 2015 silver National Order of the Baobab by the President of South Africa for exceptional and distinguished contributions in medicine.  In 2015 Prof Rees was awarded the National Science and Technology Foundations’ Lifetime Achievement Award.  She was awarded the 2014 Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship given to a leading scholar who has a sustained a record of outstanding research and intellectual achievement at the highest level. In 2006 she was elected as a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) member, and in 2010 was awarded the SA Academy of Science’s Gold Award for outstanding achievement in scientific thinking to the benefit of society.  She was awarded Wits University’s Vice-Chancellor’s Research Award (2012), Wits’ highest research recognition, and Wits Faculty of Health Sciences recognition for dedication and achievement in research (2013). She was the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s 2011 International Heath Clark lecturer awarded to an outstanding global health practitioner. The SA National Research Forum rates her as an outstanding international scientist. She was the first person to receive the SA Department of Science and Technology’s award for the ‘Distinguished Scientist recognized for outstanding contribution to improving the quality of life of women’ (2006).



Pro​f Francois Venter, Deputy Executive Director

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Professor Francois Venter is Deputy Executive Director at Wits RHI and a lecturer in the Department of Medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is also an honorary consultant at the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital. He is a previous president of the Southern African HIV Clinicians Society, which has over 3 000 members in the region.

Professor Venter has expertise in programmatic HIV implementation, especially in the provision of antiretroviral therapy, opportunistic infection prophylaxis, human resource allocation, data systems and service integration. He has extensive training experience in these areas and an interest in monitoring and evaluation of clinical interventions, as well as a human rights interest in access to quality care. Professor Venter has published several operational research studies, and is currently principal investigator on several large antiretroviral dose reduction studies. 

He has been part of and continues to participate in several important South African and regional policy-making fora.

Professor Venter is an active participant on numerous guidelines, policy and conference committees. He has been a member of the Annual Interest Workshop’s Organizing Committee since 2010, and is co-convenor of the Southern African HIV Clinicians Society Guidelines for ART delivery among migrants and crises affected persons. He has been a member of the PLOS One Human Research Advisory Group since 2014 , on several scientific and safety advisory boards for clinical studies, and on WHO clinical guidelines committees . Professor Venter is an Examiner and Committee member for the Diploma in HIV Medicine and an Examiner for the Diploma in Sexual Health and HIV for both Colleges of Medicine. He also sits on the UNAIDS Regional Treatment Forum for East and Southern Africa (ESA). He contributes regularly to discussions and papers about human rights and medical ethics.


Sagie Pillay, Chief Operating Officer



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Sagie joined Wits RHI in February 2016 as Chief Operating Officer. He brings a wealth of experience in the health and development sectors having spent eight years as CEO of Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital before joining the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS). He later joined the African Society for Laboratory Medicine (ASLM) as Executive Director.

 He has strong health economics and financial skills, extensive executive leadership and experience in public health sector hospitals, and at provincial and national departments of health. Sagie has strong health systems strengthening experience coupled with a deep understanding of the academic environment.


Sagie was instrumental in negotiating the lowest price in the world for viral loads and contributed directly to reducing global VL pricing for developing and middle income countries by 70%, during his time at the NHLS. He also established the largest and most cost effective TB and HIV testing programme in the world and successfully restructured the organisation into a more patient-centred and customer-focussed structure and culture. He established a first for the public sector while at Johannesburg Academic Hospital, creating a financially successful private facility to exploit spare bed capacity and underutilised theatres to generate additional revenue. This was used to subsidise the rest of the hospital. Sagie transformed what was a walk in academic hospital to a strict tertiary referral-only hospital by strengthening district and regional hospitals in the referral network, supported by an extended academic platform.

 Earlier in his career he transformed the Aga Khan Community hospital in Nairobi into the Aga Khan University Hospital (AKUHN), a world class tertiary not for profit hospital with a first private post-graduate medical education programme on the continent. He was responsible for developing the first tertiary cardiac and oncology service for east Africa and introduced the first doctor credentialing programme for determining admitting privileges at the new hospital


Sagie received a USAID scholarship to attend the Harvard Senior Executive Programme in 2002, a British Council Scholarship to undertake a Masters Degree and a scholarship from NORAD to undertake a Diploma at the University of Oslo in Health Economics and Project Evaluations.



Professor Sinead Delany- Moretlwe, Director: Research

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A South African-born medical doctor, Professor Delany-Moretlwe later studied public health and clinical epidemiology. She has 15 years’ experience in sexual and reproductive health and HIV prevention research and is recognised for her expertise in the prevention of HIV, particularly in young women.

Professor Delany-Moretlwe was an investigator on several ground-breaking phase III trials to evaluate herpes treatment for HIV prevention and also has extensive microbicide research experience. She worked as an investigator on several phase II and III trials of novel microbicides, and most recently was the Medical Director on the FACTS 001 phase III licensure trial of 1% tenofovir gel. She has also worked on studies of novel diagnostics for cervical cancer screening, and vaccines. She is principal investigator on three PrEP demonstration projects for adolescent girls and young women, with a particular focus on evaluating interventions that may address the social and structural barriers to PrEP use in young women. She is also technical lead on a PEPFAR Innovations award to strengthen testing and linkage to treatment and prevention in adolescents.

Professor Delany-Moretlwe currently serves on the South African National Aids Council (SANAC) prevention technical task team. She has served as a technical advisor on national and global committees that address the prevention of HIV and other STIs, as well as on several data safety and monitoring committees. She is an author on more than 90 scientific articles and was the recipient of an Overseas Research Scholarship Award, a National Research Foundation Thuthuka Award and an EDCTP Senior Fellowship.​



Dr Thesla Palanee, Director: Clinical Trials

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Dr Palanee-Phillips obtained her Master’s degree in Medical Science cum laude in December 1998 and obtained her PhD in Physiology/Biochemistry in November 2004 from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine. She gained post-doctoral experience in the Department of Molecular Virology and Bioinformatics at the Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies based at the UKZN. During her employment at the Africa Centre, she set up and managed the Flow Cytometry Division.


Dr Palanee-Phillips was responsible for training all staff, creating new protocols and for novel methods of analysis for bloods, vaginal washes, foreskins and breast milk samples from HIV positive patients, as well as for performing CD4:CD8 counts for ARV treatment trials, HIV viral load assessments on serum and dried blood spots for adults and children on various clinical trials.


In September 2003 she joined the HIV Prevention Research Unit (HPRU) of the Medical Research Council (MRC) as a Scientist where she remained until April 2009, having progressed to position of Specialist Scientist. While at MRC, she gained extensive clinical trial experience as the Site Co-ordinator on HIV Prevention Trial Network (HPTN) 055, Project Leader/Co-investigator on the Phase III Carraguard trial with the Population Council (2004-2007), Principle Investigator (PI) on Assessing the Reporting of Sensitive Behaviour in Microbicide trials; PI on a Referrals Sub study of the Carraguard Trial, and PI on the Microbicide Development Program (MDP) 301 Microbicide trial at the HPRU Isipingo Clinical Research Site.


In May 2009, she joined RHRU (now Wits RHI) in Johannesburg as a Technical Advisor on clinical trials and she became Co-investigator on the MDP 301 and SPARTAC HIV treatment trial. She is the lead investigator on all Microbicide Trial Network (MTN) protocols that were running at Wits RHI. She is the Investigator of Record on MTN 003, MTN 016 and PI and IoR on MTN 015. She is also the protocol co-chair of the MTN020 (ASPIRE) trial since 2011 and will also co-chair the ASPIRE Open label extension HOPE trial.


Dr Palanee-Phillips is the PI of the ASPIRE trial at Wits RHI. She is also a sub-investigator on the violence against women based Safe and Sound trial. In 2011, she was promoted to the position of Director of Network Trials at Wits RHI. She was the PI of the FACTS 001 trial at Wits RHI Yeoville site. In 2012 she was awarded a Commonwealth Commission Scholarship and successfully completed a distance learning MSc in clinical trials through the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in 2015.​



Dr Lee Fairlie, Director: Child & Adolescent Health

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Dr Fairlie has significant experience in clinical care and clinical trials in paediatric and adolescent HIV and co-morbidities, including TB. She has been an investigator in clinical research trials since 2007, including International Maternal Paediatric Adolescent AIDS Clinical Trials Network (IMPAACT) studies; a global network for HIV and TB prevention and treatment research for infants, children adolescents and pregnant women; and non-NIH studies in paediatrics, adolescents and pregnant women. She is the Shandukani Research Centre Leader and Investigator of Record on a number of studies, including Phase I/II pharmacokinetic studies, PMTCT studies, neurodevelopment studies, and vaccine studies involving children and pregnant women.

Together with Wits RHI’s Professor Delany-Moretlwe and Dr Mullick, she is developing an adolescent platform and adolescent cohort for immunisation and HIV treatment and prevention research. She also has experience in studies investigating HIV/TB comorbidity in children and adolescents. She is leading a recently awarded ELMA-funded project increasing HIV testing and TB screening in children and adolescents, with linkage to care, initiation of ART, retention and virological suppression on ART in City of Johannesburg and additional work investigating mother-infant pairs in the inner city of Johannesburg.

Dr Fairlie leads a team that strengthens district and sub-district level care for HIV infected and affected women, children and adolescents through USAID PEPFAR. This gives her access to various cohorts including HIV-infected populations, and to health services through which implementation science studies can be undertaken. She was awarded the IMPAACT Young Investigator Award for 2010/11 and has recently completed her Master’s degree in Paediatrics (MMED) on TB/HIV co-infection in children. She serves on the National HIV Guideline Committees for Children and Adolescents.​​



Dr Saiqa Mullick, Director: Implementation Science

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Dr Saiqa Mullick is Director of Implementation Science, responsible for leading the development and implementation of a large portfolio of programmatic research and technical assistance. Her qualifications include a medical degree, two Masters level degrees in Public Health Methodology and in Public Health in Developing Countries. She is also a member of the Institute of Directors of Southern Africa (IoDSA).

Dr Mullick has over 15 years’ experience in clinical services, implementation science, programme monitoring and evaluation, reproductive health and HIV, technical assistance and capacity building in developing country settings including Kenya, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and South Africa. She has extensive experience in the design, conduct of implementation science studies and has worked closely with governments, NGOs and stakeholders to promote utilisation of research through support to policy and guideline development at national and global level.

Her areas of technical expertise include sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), integration of HIV and sexual and reproductive health services, maternal health including contraception, prevention of mother-to-child transmission, antiretroviral (ARV) based HIV prevention and sexually transmitted and reproductive tract infections. She currently serves as Principal Investigator on a national initiative providing technical support to programming for adolescent girls and young women and is also Deputy Director of OPTIONS, a multi-country programme supporting creative research and innovation critical to advancing potential ARV-based HIV prevention products in selected countries. Prior to joining Wits RHI Dr Mullick was Country Director for the Population Council’s South Africa office and Regional Associate Director for Africa with the Population Council under the $120 million USAID program FRONTIERS.

Dr Mullick has published articles in peer reviewed publications, book chapters and multiple technical reports. She has served on international scientific committees as reviewer for international conferences and currently serves on the Steering Committee for the Annual Sexual and Reproductive Health, HIV and GBV Research Methods Course. She is recognised as an expert in her field as evidenced by her involvement as an advisor at provincial, national and global levels. She has served as an advisor to WHO on several occasions, including as a technical expert on the Global STI Guideline Development Group, the Global Guideline Development Group for post-exposure prophylaxis of HIV (PEP), Global STI Guideline Development Group, the Global Strategy for Elimination of Congenital Syphilis and Global Strategy for Control of STIs.


Dr Mullick was a core team member for development of WHO guidelines “Sexually Transmitted and other Reproductive Tract Infections – A guide to Essential Practice”, and was appointed to serve for four-year term on WHO Expert Technical Advisory Panel on STIs including HIV. She currently serves as Board Member for the AIDS Consortium, the linking organisation for the International AIDS Alliance with over 200 affiliate organisations in South Africa.​​​​​


Mariette Slabbert, Director: Seconded to SANAC

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Mariette Slabbert joined Wits RHI in August 2014 to oversee the Sex Worker Project, the Communications Department, Operations and to assist with new business. These focus areas include involvement in a variety of research projects, including, the TAPS PrEP Demonstration Project in Sex Workers, implementation research on the sex worker population and evaluation of effective communication campaigns. One of her main responsibilities is to manage the logistical and research aspects of operational research on programmes reporting to her.

Mariette has extensive experience in the healthcare industry in various capacities. She was previously Marketing Manager for Afrox Healthcare (now Life Health) and then ART rollout Project Manager at the Foundatio​n for Professional Development (FPD). While at FPD she also lectured to healthcare professionals on practice management, business and operations management, general management and developing academic training programmes. She earlier held the position of Managing Director of Bougainville Private Hospital. Prior to joining Wits RHI Mariette was Chief Operations Officer at Ndlovu Care Group.

Mariette was Principal Investigator on the CHAMP adolescent behaviour change programme, which examines the motivations and barriers to uptake and use of condoms and communication to adopt less risky behaviour. She was also programme manager of the IPM027 microbicide trial, which tests the efficacy of the Dapivirine vaginal ring in HIV negative women. She is co-investigator on the ITREMA trial. Since 2008 she has acted as co-promotor of four to six Master students annually, from the Department of Interdisciplinary Social Science, Utrecht University, and supervised numerous Dutch medical students from the Netherlands in their practical experience modules.

Mariette is a registered pharmacist and holds an MBA from the Herriott Watt Business School, University of Edinburgh. She is currently enrolled for a PhD at Utrecht University, Netherlands. She has published two articles as first author in international peer reviewed journals and authored three books.


Mariette’s multi-disciplinary background positions her to develop creative research agendas which will translate into increased research outputs and publications for Wits RHI.​​​​​​​




Where we work