By Our Reporter
“Where are our scientists?” is the question some African researchers are asking as the world step up the search for COVID-19 vaccine.
They are worried that the continent has only become a vaccine and drug testing field at a time its experts should be at the forefront of efforts to develop antidotes to COVID-19 and other diseases wreaking havoc on the people and their investments.
In a report by the Cornell Alliance for Science (AfS), the scientists say the COVID-19 pandemic should be a prompt for Africa to invest in the production of its own human vaccines. They say this could be achieved if more African countries participate in trials of the COVID-19 vaccines currently under development.
During a recent AfS live session, Omu Anzala, a professor of virology and immunology at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, queried the non-participation of Africa in ongoing COVID-19 Vaccine development efforts thus: “Where are our scientists? Where are African investments in terms of research and development?”
According to Anzala, Africa cannot afford to continue to be just testing grounds, but move on to become a major participant in every research and innovation towards solutions.
“Though we have not made these products in Africa, we must be able to move very fast with our own governments and begin clinical trials in our own communities to find out if these vaccines are safe and efficacious. Because at the end of the day, if we are going to administer these vaccines in our own communities, there will be the need to have some local data on safety and efficacy,” he said on AfS Live.
The AfS notes that although Africa is inhabited by 14 percent of the world’s population, less than 0.1 percent of human vaccine production happens in Africa. Most of that occurs in Senegal, Morocco and Tunisia. This is as the World Health Organization (WHO) says there are currently 191 vaccines under development. However, none of these is being developed in Africa. The closest Africa has gotten to working on COVID-19 vaccines, according to report is South Africa’s participation in trials of vaccines produced in the USA and the UK. Egypt is also preparing to undertake trials of Covid-19 vaccines produced in China.
According to Anzala, this should be a call to action for governments and scientists in Africa.
“In terms of where we are as a continent on COVID-19 vaccines, I’m sorry to say that Africa is not doing very well,” he said.
Speaking to this, Dr. Michael Owusu, a clinical microbiologist at Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology has said Africa must move beyond merely testing vaccines and start producing its own.
“It is good to have expertise in trials, but the goal should be to have the industries in Africa where they can manufacture their own vaccines and test it on their own population. Covid-19 has shown us that it is not healthy to completely rely on Western partners to continue giving us things we need,” he was quoted by AfS as saying.
He has also expressed fear that the next phase of a pandemic may be more disastrous if Africa is unable to ride on the opportunities within the current pandemic to build structure.
Owusu, while lamenting that initial efforts to build capacity for human vaccine development in Africa 50 years ago have long since been abandoned, said, “Vaccine manufacture is not a one-day event, it is a process. Over the years, we have not been able to establish the systems to be able to support vaccine development.”
He is, however, convinced that Africa has the human resource capacity to undertake more vaccine development projects, but said the only challenge is a lack of funding by governments and other agencies.
On a cautious note, Anzala, who has been involved in various vaccine trials in more than two decades said misinformation is a much larger threat than vaccine safety.
“I have never seen an infectious agent that has received so much misinformation as Covid. My advice is that we educate the communities to differentiate between what is information, what is data and what is knowledge. There is a lot to be done and each country would have to deal with it in their own community,” he said.