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African Scientists are Trailblazers, Not Spectators

· Africa

Africa is the most genetically diverse region in the world. So research and development can’t rely just on genetic data from African-Americans. The COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity for innovation in genomic medicine to investigate the mechanisms that underpin pathogenesis. In fact, cases in Africa have inspired African-based studies that, by tapping into the diverse genetic background of Africans, can provide important clues in the identification of biomarkers of coronavirus infection.

African scientific knowledge and research is critical

African researchers and scientists are important players in the universal fight against the COvid-19 virus. The vibrant African scientific corps and academic environment must not, cannot, be neglected or sidelined in the global research underway for development of a vaccine. They must take part in that search.

The lead editorial in the May 6, 2020 edition of The Washington Post underlined that “Vaccines are the world’s greatest hope to stave off the pandemic” and that the coronavirus’ draining of the global economy makes it “necessary to put every ounce of innovation – and massive resources – into finding a safe and effective vaccine”. But a vaccine will only be effective to the degree it is inclusive of scientific knowledge.

Fears that African countries do not have the institutional capacity to conduct research to the same ethical standards as their western counterparts has been disproved by the increased collaboration of African medical researchers and experts with European, American, Chinese medical research organizations. Over the past two decades, this collaboration has led to constructive global health partnerships for the improvement of public health not just in Africa but around the world. These partnerships, and the knowledge spawned, cannot now, at a time of greatest scientific need, be excluded because of medical stigmatization, discrimination or racism.

Genomics, transcriptomics, metabolomics, structural genomics, proteomics, and immunomics are being exploited in laboratories across the African continent to perfect the identification of targets, to design vaccines and drugs, and to predict their effects in patients. Furthermore, human genomics and related studies are providing insights into aspects of host biology that are important in infectious disease. This ever-growing body of African genomic data and new genome-based approaches play a critical role in enabling timely, safe and effective development of a COVID-19 vaccine and therapeutics to limit the spread and resurgence of the virus.

African scientists are knowledge captains and gate keepers

The views of Africans and African communities concerning participation in genomic research must be factored into the search for a COVID-19 vaccine, published and shared. African perspectives and scientific participation are crucial for developing a vaccine that is effective for everyone, with one caveat: efforts in Africa must be free from outside influences. It is especially important that African researchers not become roiled by the cut-throat competition among more “advanced” economies and their laboratories to be the first to be recognized as the “inventor” of a COVID-19 vaccine. It’s not a beauty contest.

The role of African scientists, as some in the Western scientific community would have it, is not to facilitate black guinea pigs or to open the door to big pharmaceuticals looking to “make it big”. African scientists and researchers have a critical role to play as legitimate contributors to the foundations of medical research. At the same time, they are the ones best positioned to ensure that the research approaches developed and the data gathered will not be used to predominantly benefit researchers, institutions and laboratories in North America Australia, Europe and Asia while relegating their African counterparts to consumers of knowledge regurgitated by those who appropriated it.

Research for the development and production of a COVID-19 vaccine transcends national boundaries. It must ensure the conduct of relevant, responsive, ethical and high quality translational genomics-based research on infectious diseases, including in Africa. This, of course, will depend, in part, on the ability of Western scientists to acquire the expertise and facilities necessary to lead high-quality genomics-based research aimed at understanding infectious diseases relevant to African populations and on African scientist being welcomed into the international research fold in genomics science and its applications.

It is important to point out that some new initiatives have recently been put in place to empower African researchers to overcome the challenges inherent to vaccine research and development and to unlock the potential for infectious diseases control through genomics-based approaches. These are

  • the H3Africa consortium, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and
  • the Wellcome Trust, and the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases-ACEGID, which is funded by the World Bank.

Both initiatives are focused on capacity building, as well as on specific scientific goals.

A vaccine will only be as effective as its globality

If the alliance to fight COVID-19 is to be truly international and if, as stated in the European Commission’s joint op-ed on the global response to coronavirus, [we] are determined to work together, with all those who share our commitment to international co-operation”, then the galvanization of global efforts to develop a vaccine must effectively support the response and efforts of all.

African scientists are working just as flat-out, if not harder, than those in North America, Europe and Asia to develop new tests for the virus to save us, all of us, from the pandemic. They have even gotten ahead of all those laboratories in the “advanced” world hiding behind professional barriers already competing head-to-head to be the first to come out with a vaccine.

African laboratories are already collaborating across continental geographical barriers. So of the total billions of dollars pledged to fund the race for a COVID-19 vaccine– thus far, $8 billion was pledged during the May 4, 20202 virtual vaccine summit – a sum must be dedicated to provide financial support for scientific research and development and infrastructure in Africa. The global cooperation platform Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, which builds on the commitment by G20 leaders to develop a massive and co-ordinated response to the virus, should call for dedicated support for research and scientific personnel working in research units and centers of excellencedotted across Africa.

African know-how and experience in the use of new technologies and scientific expertise are important for fast-tracking vaccine research and development. Their ongoing collaborative efforts and progress must, in all fairness, be visibly factored into a successfully inclusive response to such a fast-emerging and highly infectious agent like COVID-19.

Africa is a fighter, not an onlooker

As I wrote in a previous article, Africa is a marathon runner in the race for a COVID-19 vaccine, not a passive onlooker. The search for a COVID-19 vaccine cannot be an exclusive club. Africa, with its diversity of scientific know-how and advances, should be an active part of international efforts. It cannot be relegated to being a spectator.

The vaccine summit’s “race against time for global solutions to a global challenge” reasoning does not mean simply distributing a vaccine in Africa. It means including Africa’s researchers as significant players in the universal fight against the virus. This will not only bring regional academic and research success for African science. It will also, and more importantly, contribute to the improvement of global public health.

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC

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