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“A wake-up call for research and development collaboration among Africans.”

An old alarm clock
By Sodzi Sodzi-Tettey

Accra
Ghana

“If I could be provocative, should we not do this study in Africa where there are no masks, treatment, or intensive care, a little bit like it's done, by the way, for certain AIDS studies or with prostitutes? We try things because we know that they are highly exposed and they don't protect themselves,” said Jean-Paul Mira, head of the intensive care at Cochin Hospital in Paris. Camille Locht, the research director at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm), agreed.

The outrage was almost unanimous. The two doctors were slammed as racist.

In the ensuing debate, I sought the views of Professor Fred Newton Binka, a respected epidemiologist and pan-Africanist. As far as vaccine development goes, it would seem that there is some scientific basis to the suggestion by Mira, even if badly undermined by racism and poor phrasing. Scientists explain that by introducing a dead or disabled part of a germ into the body as a vaccine, it stimulates the production of antibodies to protect itself in readiness for an actual disease exposure. Therefore, when vaccines are ready for testing in human populations, scientists often find healthy, unexposed individuals to test for parameters like safety, effectiveness, etc. In the midst of their disdain for African lives, this, perhaps, is what the French scientists sought to articulate.

But Binka has other ideas too, pointing to the story of the Harvard professor recently arrested by the US government on charges of lying about his connections to China, including China’s Thousand Talents Plan. The Thousand Talents Plan is a program designed to lure people with knowledge of foreign technology and intellectual property to China. Similarly, why can’t African governments and scientists articulate a twofold strategy: pursue short term collaboration on well-funded research projects, while also harboring strategic ambitions of ownership of the technological know-how to ultimately advance African population health interests.

“We also have to be smart,” argues Binka.

Perhaps it is a similar ideology that inspires a wake-up call for research and development collaboration among Africans, especially on COVID-19, by Menattallah Elserafy. Menattallah, an Egyptian scientist, decries individualism among African scientists, limited laboratory capacity to support innovative research into highly infectious agents, and sub-optimal connections between research and industry. She notes better connections could have more speedily addressed shortages in ventilators and personal protective equipment. Ultimately, she recommends a stronger collaboration between “laboratories with advanced facilities and researchers with innovative ideas” in Africa in an approach that will integrate the expertise of virologists, physicians, biochemists, molecular biologists, pharmacists, engineers, and specialists in other disciplines based on the continent (and also available in the diaspora, I might add).

In a COVID-19 pandemic, now more than ever, Ghana and Africa are in dire need of robust research intelligence, especially pertaining to the local population to inform prompt public health actions. What does social distancing mean in crowded communities with non-existent or poorly ventilated accommodations? What is the commonest symptom complex reported by Ghanaian COVID-19 patients? What parameters define declarations of recovery? Which industries can and should be supported to start aggressive local production of personal protective equipment, masks, and even ventilators, side-stepping the time-tested lures of procurement? And what do we have to say regarding the anecdotal reports (still under scientific investigation) of relief from hydroxychloroquine, a drug which Africa arguably has more experience using than any other region of the world?

Investing in, spearheading, and collaborating on robust research to inform public health interventions has never been more necessary. But of course, that is all on the assumption that our leaders want Africa to be determined, active drivers and not helpless consumers of other people’s health investments.

Identify African countries spending more than the 1% of GDP targeted for research and development (R&D) by the Africa Union. South Africa, Africa’s highest spender, dedicates 0.82% of GDP.

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