COVID-19 puts health research to the test in Africa

Bockarie says that the peculiar odds presented by the COVID-19 pandemic may be in favor

Bockarie says that the peculiar odds presented by the COVID-19 pandemic may be in favor of Africa’s developing vibrant research infrastructures across the continent.

For instance, “a bane of Africa has been the un-equitable North/South collaborations, so-called helicopter scientific adventures, which make a sweep of a site/center/institution in Africa, collect the samples, and dash out to their bases, with little attribution to local researchers, communities, local policymakers, etc.,” Kariuki tells Nature Medicine.

But with no clear path yet for the resumption of international travel, ‘helicopter science’ is made trickier, which clears the path for local researchers to fill the gap. Kariuki says that the African Academy of Science is working with partners, including the UK Collaborative on Development Research, “to attain collaborations that are truly equitable across the globe.”

Bockarie also notes that research capacity will not be strengthened substantially without meaningful prioritization by policymakers. Stakeholders who are deciding and leading Africa’s response to COVID-19 are officially supporting the involvement of the continent’s research ecosystem in their response plans, but research is not accepted across the board as a top priority.

“African researchers are yet to become indispensable to the daily lives of the people, and that is why almost no one is listening to scientists, and the leaders are also not prioritizing getting things back to normal, and it is understandable. We have people publishing papers on, and becoming professors for, their works on malaria — yet cases of malaria continue to increase annually in Africa,” Tomori says.

However, Bockarie adds that COVID-19 has drawn attention to health research and it has now become easier for scientists to explain and convince African governments of the need to invest in science. “It has demonstrated to the government the need for investment in research. If someone now goes and says ‘I need $1 million to set up a BSL3 lab’, the government can now understand why they need to invest in that lab. Before now, they would say ‘we get bed nets for free, why will I give you $1 million to try and set up a thing for malaria vaccine?’ Now everybody can understand,” he says.

Accordingly, Ihekwazu tells Nature Medicine that the current pandemic “is a warning for all of us to invest in research to understand diseases and how they spread in communities,” noting that it could potentially inspire more Nigerians to venture into the science of diseases.

Ambrose Dlamini, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Eswatini, agrees. Dlamini tells Nature Medicine that African governments are now seeing the science of pandemics differently and will now be more proactive in expanding capacities for future outbreaks.

“We’ve developed some capacity that we think we are going to leverage going forward. We are going to use the national response framework, which has really done well, providing us with capacity over the years; we want to develop it to equip the country to deal with future pandemics,” he tells Nature Medicine.

Moreover, several Africans are leading international health agencies, including the WHO and The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, setting research high on policymakers’ agendas.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa recently ascended to lead the African Union, the body that notably coordinates the continent’s response to COVID-19. Ramaphosa sees the value in research and has been investing in health research in South Africa. According to Bockarie, Ramaphosa will be in a good position to educate fellow African heads of state, and this may bode well for research funding in Africa going forward.

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