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Universities pull their academic weight in fight against COVID-19

Since the first case of the coronavirus disease in Sub-Saharan Africa was diagnosed in late January by medical researchers at the Centre for Human and Zoonotic Virology of the College of Medicine at the University of Lagos in Nigeria, universities in Sub-Saharan Africa have been proving their capacity to assist in the global response to the pandemic.

Led by Christian Happi, a professor of molecular biology and genomics, researchers from the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Disease (ACEGID) at Redeemer’s University in Nigeria carried out Africa’s first genome sequence and molecular arrangement of SARS-CoV-2, the technical name of the coronavirus.

ACEGID is part of various university-based centres of excellence that were set up by the World Bank starting from 2014 to transform science and technology in higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Infectious diseases research

According to Professor Crispus Kiamba, a member of the advisory group of the World Bank-affiliated Partnership for skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (PASET), ACEGID is a key centre for research in infectious diseases in Africa, as scientists also work on a wide range of infectious diseases that include Lassa fever and Ebola.

However, since the current outbreak and global spread of coronavirus, researchers at Makerere University College of Veterinary Medicine have found new forms of coronavirus in Ugandan bats and camels.

According to Denis Byarugaba, professor of microbiology and laboratory director of emerging infectious diseases at Makerere University Walter Reed Project, the current outbreak provided researchers an opportunity to screen 500 bats for coronaviruses. “We were able to isolate mass coronaviruses from those bats,” said Byarugaba recently in Kampala.

Samples collected from 500 camels in northern Uganda also had coronavirus. “We found 70% positivity in our serological tests,” said Dr Sylvia Baluka, a lecturer at the Makerere University College of Veterinary Medicine and member of the coronavirus research team.

But Byarugaba noted that forms of coronaviruses that his team isolated were quite different from the virus behind COVID-19, the cause of the current pandemic.

Professor Pontiano Kaleebu, director of the Uganda Virus Research Institute, said coronaviruses have been in animals for a long time. “COVID-19 is proving deadly because SARS-CoV-2 has just crossed from an animal to a new host, the human being,” clarified Kaleebu, speaking to press in Kampala.

According to Dr Marianne Mureithi, a microbiologist at the University of Nairobi, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. In an interview with University World News, Mureithi said most coronaviruses originate from bats and seem to make their way to humans via some intermediate species.

Search for a vaccine

As the disease surges, medical researchers at the University of Nairobi have joined the world in a search for a coronavirus vaccine as countries grapple with the pandemic. Headed by Professor Omu Anzala, a senior research scientist at the Institute of Clinical Research at the College of Health Sciences, the team is studying how the coronavirus is responding to treatment.

“Our main objective is to identify candidates for the vaccine trials in a bid to stop the pandemic, as well as to establish at what point those declared free of the virus stopped spreading it,” said Anzala, speaking at the University of Nairobi in March.

Still in Kenya, Kenyatta University recently unveiled a prototype ventilator that it said would only cost about US$5,000, a quarter of the cost of a conventional machine. The university’s engineering and biomedical engineering departments will be able to produce 50 every week, according to Vice-Chancellor Paul Wainaina.

The Centre for Innovative Drug Development and Therapeutic Trials for Africa (CDT-Africa) at the University of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is part of a global COVID-19 Clinical Research Coalition of over 70 institutions from more than 30 countries.

“The coalition aims to accelerate desperately needed COVID-19 research in those areas where the virus could wreak havoc on already-fragile health systems and cause the greatest health impact on vulnerable populations,” said a statement by the African Centres of Excellence (ACE II).

Besides developing standards for clinical trials for COVID-19 treatments in Africa, CDT-Africa is involved in two different committees for drafting protocols for trials of medicines for various medicals emergencies.

Innovation

The ACE II Project is proving its innovation capacity. The Africa Centre of Excellence (ACE) in Materials, Product Development and Nanotechnology at Makerere, in partnership with a local engineering company, has developed a “self-sanitising” facemask with an inbuilt sanitiser, which makes it possible for the mask to disinfect the user while protecting the face and mouth from acting as entry points for the virus.

Besides engaging in cutting-edge research and innovation, several African universities have been on the frontline of creating public awareness in their respective countries. The University of Ghana, in collaboration with Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research, has formed a joint emergency response team to spearhead a prevention and awareness campaign against COVID-19 in the country.

Aware of the disruptions caused by COVID-19 in higher education, the Accra-based Association of African Universities had been encouraging members to take an active role in educating communities about the disease. Towards this goal, Makerere University, in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University Resource Center, has developed a dedicated website to provide research-based information on COVID-19.

The Pharm-Biotechnology and Traditional Medicine Centre at Mbarara University of Science and Technology, Uganda is making hand sanitisers in response to COVID-19, an initiative it says was in pipeline prior to the arrival of the disease, but was fast-tracked in response. The centre hopes the sanitisers which use low-cost local materials will help bring down prices.

Beyond scientific research, the University of Nairobi has helped the Kenyan government craft a bill to help legislate measures to fight the pandemic. This, it says, is besides various proposals its faculty are drafting for funds to study assorted aspects of the pandemic.

Research funding and resourcing

But while the response from African universities has been commendable, it is obviously constrained by limited research capacity and resources.

In an interview with University World News last month, Dr Anne Kamau, director of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) Centre of Excellence for Non-Communicable Diseases, said “a huge funding gap” was limiting the capacity of African researchers.

“Even when funding is available, it is often one-directional, either focusing on infectious or non-infectious diseases,” she said.

“The best approach would be to focus on multiple dimensions of health that often overlap to create various disease conditions. There is a need for greater investment in university research and capacity-building of inter-disciplinary researchers who can respond to global health challenges and crises. The learning should be global and not limited to single universities or regions since, as demonstrated in the case of COVID-19, diseases are global and therefore need global response.”

Kamau described COVID-19 as “a wake-up call” for learning institutions, governments and development partners globally.

“A critical issue that governments must address is funding of university research and supporting researchers to engage with communities. Funding for basic research and for development of research infrastructure needs to be boosted, as well as that of implementation.

“Universities and indeed governments should do whatever they can to ensure that university jobs remain attractive and that researchers are enabled to undertake high-end research that responds to everyday realities,” she said.


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