Focus Areas

As a leading multi-disciplinary research institute with a focus in sexual and reproductive health, vaccine and infectious diseases, and other emerging issues, we lead and deliver successful research projects with an impact in the communities we serve. We have leveraged our presence internationally in initiatives to curb the impact of COVID-19 in South Africa.

Wits RHI is one of the leading multi-disciplinary research institutes in Africa with an extensive portfolio that includes research, programmatic support, training, policy development, health strengthening and technical assistance at national and international levels. This year, Wits RHI celebrates 28 years of an unparalleled track record of conducting world class research, implementing sustainable health programmes, and contributing to health policy. In recognition of our outstanding research output and strong international standing, Wits RHI was conferred an institute status by the University of the Witwatersrand in 2010. The institute is part of the Faculty of Health Sciences and is the largest research institute of the University of the Witwatersrand. We are a Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), World Health Organization (WHO) and South African Medical Research Council (MRC) collaborating centre as well as a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) strategic partner.

The institute has a spread of activities, relevant to an African academic institution. Over the years we have been involved in innovative research and increasing outputs in our key focus areas which are sexual reproductive health, vaccine and infectious diseases, other emerging issues, and COVID-19 interventions.

Under the leadership of Prof Helen Rees, the institute has been participating in ground-breaking COVID-19 studies and interventions. These interventions are aimed at determining effective and safe COVID-19 treatments, prevention, and better understanding of COVID-19 transmission.

Wits RHI has contributed to many groundbreaking clinical trials such as, the dissemination of the results of the FACTS 001 trial, a multi-centre phase III licensure trial of tenofovir 1% gel were released at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections. This was a well-conducted trial that showed that the tenofovir gel was not effective in preventing HIV infection in young South African women and highlighted the urgent need for new HIV prevention methods for this group at high risk of HIV infection.

Our recent research breakthrough was the HPTN O84 study which showed that the long-acting cabotegravir is safe and superior to FTC/TDF for PrEP among cisgender women in sub-Saharan Africa.

The ASPIRE trial (MTN 020) was a phase III trial of the safety and effectiveness of a dapivirine-containing intravaginal ring and the ECHO trial, which was a large phase III trial that evaluated the safety of injectable contraception. This clinical trial addressed a long-standing question about the relationship between hormonal contraceptive use and the risk of HIV acquisition has found no substantial difference in HIV risk among 7,829 African women who were randomly assigned to use one of three highly effective methods of contraception.

Wits RHI is also pleased to be part of the recently disseminated Antibody Mediated Prevention Study (AMP) results. New results from two proof-of-concept studies (HVTN 704/HPTN 085 and HVTN 703/HPTN 081- the AMP Studies) demonstrate that infusions of the broadly neutralizing monoclonal HIV antibody (bNAb) VRC01 can prevent some HIV infections.

Another remarkable study was the life-changing research from the OPTIONS study which resulted in the prequalification of the nonprofit International Partnership for Microbicides (IPM) dapivirine ring for women’s HIV prevention. The dapivirine ring is a monthly vaginal ring to reduce women’s HIV risk. WHO prequalification brings the dapivirine ring an important step closer to being made available to women, who want and deserve new choices in HIV prevention.

The success of Wits RHI will continue to be built on a clear vision, strong leadership, tenacity, and a robust team that is focused on achieving outcomes.

Sexual and Reproductive Health

All men and women have the right to quality reproductive health care and access to services such as family planning. In countries where resources are constrained and health systems are overburdened by diseases such as HIV and TB, it remains a challenge to develop reproductive health care strategies that are able to reach populations in need.

Evidence is needed from high quality studies to design and implement these strategies; a gap that Wits RHI is addressing through its research.

In 2017, we received funding support from Unitaid to implement an SRH access project that will provide PrEP to 6,640 adolescent girls and young women aged 15 to 24 in priority areas of South Africa.

This three-year project will be integrated into the National Department of Health’s She Conquers campaign, which works with adolescent women and young girls to reduce HIV incidence, gender-based violence, teenage pregnancy, school drop-out rates and youth unemployment, with a focus on prioritized districts.

Our work includes:

Unitaid PrEP Project

Health Systems Strengthening Programmes

The Institute has played a pinnacle role in assisting the Department of Health in South Africa with service delivery, technical and policy support. Throughout the years, we have demonstrated great dedication, expertise, and knowledge in different fields in health systems strengthening and innovations. Our Health Systems Strengthening (HSS) portfolio was awarded funding from USAID/PEPFAR and CDC. The goal of the programmes is to improve HIV and TB outcomes and strengthen broader health systems by providing direct service delivery and technical expertise to the Department of Health at national, provincial, district and facility levels. We are also assisting in development of solutions in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in South Africa.

Our work includes:

Health Systems Strengthening Programmes

Vaccine and Infectious Diseases

Wits RHI supports the development of vaccines that control infectious diseases during outbreaks and epidemics through surveillance and research. Our goal is to improve vaccines and strengthen the rollout of immunisation programmes so that more vaccines are accessible especially to people in marginalised communities. At a global level, Wits RHI has strategic partnerships in place with WHO and UNAIDS, with our staff providing technical support on a range of policy documents and guidelines. Internationally, Wits RHI also continues to collaborate with PEPFAR USAID, Bill and Melinda Gates, AVAC, and CDC just to name a few. We have also had extensive involvement with international vaccine research partners and global policy. We are a lead partner in the African Local Initiative for Vaccinology Expertise (ALIVE); a Wits University project to create a flagship vaccine and immunisation institution.

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 has engaged in COVID-19 key projects spearheaded by our directors.

We are currently involved in a total of 15 national and international COVID-19 studies and initiatives. These studies and initiatives were initiated at local, national, and international level through partnerships with other health organisations and countries. Some of the key COVID-19 projects we are involved in include; the Solidarity trial, CROWN Coronation, Novovax, ENSEMBLE, and the South African Ox1Cov-19 Vaccine VIDA-Trial. 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 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.

Our work includes:

COVID-19 Initiatives and Projects


We conduct public health research to support the government’s response to infectious diseases.

Wits RHI offers technical support to the Department of Health (DoH) on Drug-resistant TB (DR TB) and clinical support and mentoring at decentralised DR treatment sites within The City of Johannesburg Region F.

Our work includes:

TB Champs


Other Emerging Issues

Many infectious diseases have emerged; others have unexpectedly reappeared. The link between environmental sustainability and health is generally misunderstood policy-makers. We acknowledge that social cohesion and sustainability is a necessary basis for health.

Wits RHI has expanded its expertise in other fields of research such as urbanisation, noncommunicable diseases and climate change