African countries are still reeling from the effect of measures, such as lockdowns, that were taken to contain the spread of COVID-19. Although painful, they were a vital part of the successful public health response mounted by many African leaders.
Quick responses from most African countries meant that they were able to avoid the large-scale loss of life seen elsewhere. The 1.8 million infections and 44,000 deaths recorded on the continent in mid-November are a great loss. However, they are far from the catastrophic predictions made in March and April.
But the fight is not over yet: The African Centers for Disease Control recently warned of a new wave of infections, reporting nearly 9,000 cases a day. With the closures closed and the borders opening, this number will certainly increase.
If good public health measures helped Africa tackle its first wave of COVID-19, a response led by scientists and researchers must be critical to any current and future threats. This was emphasized by several high-level African scientists meeting at a recent webinar convened to discuss next steps to contain the pandemic.
The strong leadership shown by many African countries during the pandemic is certainly a lesson for others. But strong leadership needs good science. For Africa, this means that COVID-19 vaccine and treatment research needs to be conducted here, led by African scientists, and tailored to this specific context.
Lessons from Africa
Global solidarity may be lacking in the fight against COVID-19, but not regional cooperation, especially in Africa. As the director of the African Centers for Disease Control, John Nkengasong, noted, “the continent came together very quickly.”
Under his leadership, 55 ministers of health met in Addis Ababa in February to develop a joint African strategy for the COVID-19 outbreak.
One of the decisions made was to develop a platform to train 100,000 healthcare workers and for the common procurement of diagnostic medical supplies. Dubbed the “Partnership to Accelerate COVID-19 Testing in Africa (PACT),” the initiative was established for multiple countries and has led to 12 million tests.
Many countries closed borders and implemented blockades. South Africa instituted one of the strictest in the world. For its part, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) instituted a blockade and suspended all flights to the country, the main way in which cases were presented.
Several countries also developed impressive test programs. One was Senegal, whose Institut Pasteur in Dakar was one of only two laboratories with COVID-19 testing capacity when the pandemic began. Results are now available within hours. The country has also trained health workers in other parts of the continent, and the Institut is developing home test kits that should be available soon.
In South Africa, an army of healthcare workers with expertise in HIV and TB were used as contact markers for COVID-19.
Another characteristic of the response in some countries was getting buy-in from the communities. Steve Mundeke Ahuka, Incident Manager for the COVID-19 outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said the country drew on its past experience in handling the Ebola response.
This involved using social scientists and epidemiologists to study perceptions of Ebola in the community due to mistrust of outsiders. This insights were used to create and adapt communications to combat fake news and support vaccination and contact tracing. After two difficult years, the strategies paid off: more than 300,000 people were vaccinated.
Similar strategies were used for COVID-19.
Research on COVID-19
Most of the research being conducted for COVID-19 is taking place in North America and Europe. Large, well-organized clinical trials that began months ago are already saving lives.
This intensity of research is necessary on the continent.
There are a number of reasons for this.
The first is that Africa has a different genetic profile. According to Helen Rees, Executive Director of the Wits Institute for Reproductive Health and HIV in South Africa, who is leading the COVID-19 vaccination efforts in South Africa,
Populations have different genetic backgrounds and are exposed to different infections such as HIV and malaria. We need to know if future vaccines will be safe and effective in our populations.
Another reason for doing more research on the continent is that it can help drive policy. As Borna Nyaoke Anoke, DNDi Senior Clinical Project Manager and Medical Manager, argues:
We need large, well-conducted, randomized clinical trials in Africa to support policy change for treatments.
One of the most pressing priorities is the need for treatment for mild to moderate cases to avoid massive hospitalizations that would overwhelm already overburdened health systems. DNDi will soon launch a large clinical trial with several African and European partners to fill this gap. Various treatments that can be given to patients with mild symptoms will be tried.
Finally, African countries must be actively involved in the field of research to ensure that they are not the last in line for life-saving treatments and vaccines.
African countries have shown that they have the skills and experience to provide local solutions to this global pandemic. They must build on this success together to keep the pandemic at bay.
ooyrce: – The conversation