Prof Helen Rees, Executive Director

Professor Helen Rees is internationally recognised as an outstanding global health leader working for thirty years in global health. A Medical Doctor by profession, in 1994 Helen founded the University of Witwatersrand’s Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, one of Africa’s largest Research Institutes. With Wits RHI, she has contributed enormously to ‘Lower/Middle-Income Country’ (LMIC) relevant research focusing on disease prevention and treatment, HIV/STIs, vaccines, infectious diseases, reproductive health, and climate and health, and has over 250 publications to her name. Professor Rees is a Personal Professor in the University of Witwatersrand’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and the Co-Director of Wits African Leadership in Vaccinology Expertise (ALIVE), a Wits University flagship programme. She is an Honorary Professor in the Department of Clinical Research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), and an Honorary Fellow in Murray Edwards College, Cambridge University. She has been awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science (Medicine) by the University of London and is a graduate of Harvard Business School (HBS) having completed the HBS Senior Executive Programme for Southern Africa. Professor Rees is recognised as an outstanding chairperson with an ability to create consensus, to synthesize recommendations from multifaceted inputs, and to link science to policy. She has chaired over 100 national and international scientific and policy committees and has delivered over 400 invited plenary and keynote addresses and contributed to the organisation of more than 100 conferences. She is the Chair of the WHO African Regional Immunisation Technical Advisory Group (RITAG). She has chaired many WHO committees and is currently Co-chair of the WHO Ebola Vaccine working group, Co-chair of the WHO Evidence Considerations for Vaccine Policy Working Group, Co-chair of WHO’s HIV Vaccine and Monoclonal Antibody Technical Committee and a member of the WHO SAGE Working Group on HPV vaccines. She is the chair of WHO’s International Health Regulation (IHR) Polio Emergency Committee and a member of the WHO Scientific and Technical Advisory Group on Infectious Hazards.

She has joined the many regional and global voices calling for equitable global access to COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics and is a keen advocate for increasing research capacity in LMICs and the African region and is a member of the Facilitation Committee of the COVID-19 LMIC Clinical Research Coalition and of the African Union/African CDC’s COVID-19 vaccine research committee. Professor Rees is a member of the WHO’s IHR Emergency Committee on COVID-19 responsible for advising WHO’s Director General on the declaration of a global Public Health Emergency of International Concern and the associated global temporary recommendations. Through her work with Gavi, CEPI, the COVAX Facility and WHO both globally and in the African region, she continues to serve on the following committees for COVID-19 vaccines: Co-chair of Gavi COVID-19 Vaccination Delivery Support Steering Committee, member of the International Health Regulations (IHR) Emergency Committee for COVID-19, member of WHO SAGE COVID-19 Vaccine Committee and member of the COVAX Independent Advisory Group on COVID-19 vaccines. In these roles she has advised on the selection of and investment in COVID-19 vaccine candidates. She is also a member of the COVAX committee on COVID-19 maternal immunization. In South Africa, Professor Rees is a member of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19, a member of the SA National Essential Medicines Committee on COVID-19 therapeutics, and a member of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 vaccines. As chair of the SA Regulatory Authority, she has been involved in development of regulatory guidelines for COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. Professor Rees is the Co-Chair of SA’s Health Data Advisory and Co-ordination Committee, a member of SA’s National Advisory Group on Immunization and a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the SA National Institute of Communicable Diseases.

Professor Helen Rees was a human rights and health activist in South Africa during the apartheid era and in 2015 was awarded the South African National Order of the Baobab, one of the country’s highest awards, for exceptional and distinguished contributions to the South African health sector and to maternal and child health. In 2022 she received the platinum South African National Batho Pele Award for excellence in contribution to the South African COVID-19 response. In 2001, Queen Elizabeth II made her an Officer of the British Empire for her contribution to global health. In 2022 she was made an Officer of the French National Order of Merit by President Macron for her contribution to global health and to the COVID-19 response. In 2011 she was the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s Heath Clark lecturer awarded to ‘an outstanding global health practitioner’. In 2014 she was awarded the 2014 Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship given to a leading scholar with a sustained record of outstanding research and intellectual achievement at the highest level. In 2012, the SA Medical Association honoured Professor Rees with a lifetime achievement award for outstanding contribution to the South African health sector.

In 2015 she was awarded the SA National Science and Technology Foundations’ Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2010 the SA Academy of Science bestowed a Gold Award on Professor Rees for outstanding achievement in scientific thinking to the benefit of society and she is nominated member of the Academy of Science of South Africa. Professor Rees was the first person to receive the SA Department of Science and Technology’s award ‘Distinguished Scientist recognized for outstanding contribution to improving the quality of life of women’ in 2006. The South African National Research Forum awarded her the status of an outstanding international scientist. She was awarded the University’ of Witwatersrand’s Vice-Chancellor’s Research Award in 2012, Wits’ highest research recognition, and Wits Faculty of Health Sciences recognition for dedication and achievement in research in 2013. In 2002 Professor Rees was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award for contribution to women and children’s rights by Amanitare, a pan African NGO that supports the rights of African women and children.