Professor Helen Rees, Executive Director

Since the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wits RHI immediately responded to a clarion call for contributions towards multiple national and global defences. Wits RHI is Wits’ largest research Institute with a mandate for multidisciplinary research, health systems strengthening and capacity building, focusing on HIV/TB, vaccine preventable diseases and reproductive health. Under the leadership of Prof Helen Rees, Wits RHI has participated in ground-breaking COVID-19 studies and interventions. Wits RHI is currently involved in a total of 15 national and international COVID-19 studies and initiatives. Prof Rees is the Co-Chair of the South African arm of the Solidarity Trial, centrally coordinated from Wits and operational in 14 national academic hospitals, this World Health Organisation (WHO) coordinated trial will generate high-quality evidence on COVID-19 treatment options. Prof Rees is also the International Coordinator for the global CROWN Coronation study looking at strategies to protect healthcare workers against COVID-19 infection.

Prof Rees is widely recognised for her work as a global health practitioner and has been appointed as chair and member of many international scientific committees and Boards. She has been actively involved in national, regional and global response efforts to COVID-19 including the development of COVID-19 vaccines, their potential rollout and utilization. As well as Chairing the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) Board, she is also a member of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19, and a member of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 vaccines and she Chairs the MAC COVID-19 Variant and Vaccines Technical Working Group. Prof Rees has worked extensively with WHO and other institutions in the African region and is chair of WHO’s African Regional Immunisation Technical Advisory Group on Immunization (RITAG). Prof Rees has chaired the WHO’s International Health Regulation (IHR) Polio Emergency Committee since 2014, and is a member of the WHO IHR Emergency Committee on COVID-19. She is the Co-Chair of the WHO SAGE Working Group on Ebola Vaccines, a member of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (Gavi) Board and chairs the Gavi Programme and Policy Committee. She is a member of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovation (CEPI) Board and chairs the CEPI Scientific Advisory Committee. She is a member of the COVAX committee on COVID-19 maternal immunisation and a member of the WHO SAGE Working Group on COVID-19 vaccines. With her, Gavi CEPI and WHO are jointly driving the global COVID vaccine effort including the COVAX facility, and Prof Rees is also involved with the oversight of the COVAX facility.

Prof Rees has won many national and international awards for her contribution to global health and to science including being made an Officer of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II for her contribution to global health, and in 2016 being awarded the South African National Order of the Baobab for her contribution to medicine and to medical research. Prof Rees is a Personal Professor in Wits’ Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and Co-Founder/Co-Director of ALIVE (African Leadership in Vaccinology Expertise) which is Wits University’s flagship vaccinology programme. She is an Honorary Professor in the Department of Clinical Research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Helen obtained her Medical Degree and Masters in Social and Political Sciences from Murray Edwards College, Cambridge University, where she is now an Honorary Fellow. She is an alumnus of Harvard Business School. Before becoming an academic, Helen was an anti-apartheid and women’s health activist and clinician working in Alexandra Township, Johannesburg throughout the turbulent 1980s.