Gray – who is the president and CEO of the SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC) – has dedicated over two decades to HIV/Aids research and reducing mother-to-child transmission in the country.
Even though she’s an internationally recognised authority in the field, she was still caught off guard by the honour.
“I was really surprised by the announcement. At first I though they had made a mistake,” she was quoted telling Health24.
“I should not be on the list of the most influential people in the world, it’s quite intimidating.”
READ MORE: Scientist hopeful about HIV vaccine
Gray is part of a team leading an HIV vaccine clinical trial that is currently underway involving more than 5 400 sexually active men and women aged between 18-35 over a four-year period.
The trial is one of the biggest clinical trials to be undertaken and it has renewed hope for a breakthrough.
Researchers are aiming to test the efficacy of the vaccine as a potential virus killer. The safety of the vaccine has already been established on 252 volunteers over an 18-month period.
The vaccine has been adapted for the HIV strain prevalent in southern Africa from one used in a trial of 16 000 people in Thailand in 2009, which reduced the risk of infection by more than 30% for three-and-a-half years after the first injection.
If the trial shows an efficacy rate of 50%, then the vaccine will be considered as an effective vaccine and it could pave the way for the licensing of the first global HIV vaccine.
Gray also chairs the Global Alliance for Chronic Diseases to lead research collaborations on chronic diseases worldwide.
Under her leadership, SAMRC has received three consecutive clean audits and she’s played a significant role in redirecting resources to invest in historically under-resourced universities and elevating the research agenda to build the next generation of black medical scientists in the country.
Gray co-founded the Soweto-based Perinatal HIV Research Unit (HPRU) and has received the Order of Mapungubwe, one of the highest orders bestowed by the president in SA for her work in the field, particularly her life-saving research into mother-to-child HIV transmission.
She was also a champion for HIV positive people during former president Thabo Mbeki’s HIV denialist era.
“Placing people at the centre of health research is the fuel for ensuring impact”, Gray said.