African universities in the global quest for solutions
Over the past week, it has become clear that Africa is particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19, and its economic consequences. Africa’s universities have been at the forefront of fighting the virus on their continent. Members of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), with which The Guild has entered a close partnership, have been engaging in research to understand the virus within the local context and to support the search for a vaccine.
University of Pretoria, by its participation in WHO’s multi-centre clinical trial for Africa, is working towards the project objective of accurately estimating the effects of antiviral treatments on in-hospital mortality. The university is also leading a South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) study on the development of a rapid test method. Other research initiatives include collaboration with the Gavan Institute in Sydney, Australia, aimed at profiling risk in South Africa using whole-genome profiles; research on bats as potential carriers of the virus being undertaken by UP’s Centre for Viral Zoonosis.
Scientists at University of Ghana have successfully sequenced the genomes of the coronavirus in Ghana. The feat, which was achieved through collaboration between scientists from the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research (NMIMR) and the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP), represents an important milestone in understanding the variations of the virus. The Noguchi Institute, which is one of the two facilities initially designated for testing COVID-19, remains Ghana’s primary testing facility for all suspected COVID-19 cases, accounting for over 80 percent of tests nationally.
A team from University of Cape Town, led by Professors Anna-Lise Williamson and Ed Rybicki, is working on HIV-1 vaccines for South Africa, using technologies such as soluble trimeric spike protein production for HIV Env in animal cells and plants, and use of DNA and poxvirus-based vaccine vectors for HIV protein delivery. They complement this with the activities of scientists at the Biopharming Research Unit (BRU) of UCT using the DNA and poxvirus and cell culture and plant production approaches to develop candidate vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 S protein and its related genes. There are other efforts to develop antibodies for COVID-19, for instance, by mining monoclonal antibody (mAb) genes from survivals and the establishment of immunoassays and enzyme immunoassays for antibody detection for sero-surveillance.
At Addis Ababa University, a COVID-19 Research Working Group comprising faculty from different colleges and research institutes has been allocated an amount of ten million ETB by the state. Their focus areas include Psycho-Social and Economic Impacts, Epidemiological and Clinical, Molecular Epidemiology, Vaccines and Diagnostics Development. Also, two faculty members from AAU formed part of the COVID-19 Clinical Research Coalition, which aims to accelerate research on the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 in low- and middle-income countries.
Research conducted by Makerere University has detected Coronaviruses in bats which live near humans in Rwanda while studies by researchers at the University of Nairobi have found that 10 percent of bats carry the Coronavirus.
University of Nairobi has been selected to play a leading role following the selection of Kenya by the WHO as a testing site for vaccine trials. A team of virus specialists from the University form part of a National Task Force.
African universities are essential to expanding our global knowledge of the pandemic and vital for the resilience of local populations. Whilst the allocation of €3.25 billion by Team Europe to African countries is crucial to support them dealing with the pandemic, only a long-term investment in Africa’s research capacities can strengthen the continent’s preparedness to fight pandemics on its own soil, and address profound demographic, social and environmental challenges. As ARUA and The Guild have argued, a forward-looking EU-Africa partnership must prioritise research and innovation to develop the African knowledge society and economy, or as Commissioner Urpilainen stated, “we need to work together in order to tackle our shared challenges”.
This article was first published by the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) and has been reproduced here with some amendments by kind permission from ARUA.