When the omicron variant appeared in researcher Sikhulile Moyo’s Botswana laboratory, it become the latest contribution African scientists have made to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
A study in the British Medical Journal found that African scientists published 1,130 articles about the pandemic, roughly 3% of the total research worldwide, during the first year of the pandemic.
“Our findings indicated a robust African capacity to generate locally relevant knowledge and innovations for Africa,” wrote the report’s lead author, Dr. Musa Abubakar Kana, an associate professor at Nigeria’s Federal University Lafia.
The pandemic has become an opportunity to showcase Africa’s scientific capacity and the engine driving an expansion of that same capacity. Since the start of the pandemic:
- Labs in Ghana, Ethiopia, Senegal, South Africa and elsewhere have tracked the spread of COVID-19 in real time — something they could not have done a decade ago.
- In Kenya, mathematician Shem Sam has developed a statistical model that lets him forecast the onset and duration of waves of infections.
- At Senegal’s Pasteur Institute of Dakar, researchers produced the continent’s first low-cost rapid test for COVID-19 early in the pandemic, eliminating the need to send samples abroad and helping to speed up the public health response to the virus.
Nigerian researcher Dr. Christian Happi, director of the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases based at Redeemer’s University, reported Sub-Saharan Africa’s first case of COVID-19 on February 27, 2020.
Happi’s announcement showed that African countries no longer had to rely on laboratories outside the continent to sequence viruses — a time-consuming process that created life-threatening delays in responding to outbreaks.
The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) established its genomic research center two years before the pandemic erupted. Since then, the center has joined others across the continent to build Africa’s capacity for identifying and responding to COVID-19.
In September, Happi said his lab had trained researchers from 14 countries in genomic sequencing of viruses. By December, it had trained 16 more. Labs in South Africa and Senegal also have trained researchers in how to identify COVID-19 and track potential variants.
“Now we’re taking charge of the situation,” Happi told a World Health Organization press briefing. “We’re on top of it.”
African scientists have alerted the world to at least five new variants of COVID-19, two of which — beta and omicron — spread globally.
Others have been busy seeking treatments for those infected with COVID-19. The continentwide ANTICOV project is testing a variety of readily available drugs against COVID-19, trying to find inexpensive treatments.
With decades of experience combating HIV and tuberculosis, South Africa has emerged as a key player in the continent’s COVID-19 fight.
The Durban-based KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) confirmed Moyo’s discovery of omicron and announced its existence in late November. KRISP also reported the existence of the beta variant in 2020.
“There’s a lot of technical capacity in South Africa to do genomic sequencing of pathogens because we’ve built up that expertise over many years for HIV and TB,” KRISP infectious disease expert Dr. Richard Lessells told Bloomberg. “Very early on in the pandemic, we recognized that genomic sequencing and genomic surveillance was going to be very important.”
The appearance of COVID-19 has inspired greater investment in public research that has prepared the continent for future epidemics and pandemics, researchers say.
“Prior to the rising incidence of emerging infections in Africa, the contributions of Africans in global scientific publications were limited and might be attributed to poor investments in capacity building and research in African institutions,” Kana wrote.
Based on the success African scientists have had responding to COVID-19, African governments should increase spending on research to increase the contribution of African-led research in infectious diseases, Kana added.
To that end, Africa CDC Director Dr. John Nkengasong has called for greatly expanding Africa’s pool of epidemiologists and other disease specialists as part of a plan to fight future disease outbreaks.
“It is clear in my mind that the continent has a huge human capacity for public health, including both leadership and operations,” Nkengasong said recently.