Okot Nyormoi

COVID-19To say that the COVID-19 pandemic has a profound impact on science and technology in the world is a gross understatement. The challenges posed have stimulated many scientific and technological developments across the globe, some of which are re-purposing of old technologies whereas others are brand new.  The recent announcements of COVID-19 vaccines are examples of such speedy accomplishment, but much more still needs to be done. 

The literature is full of reports on the impact of COVID-19 on science and technology in the developed countries. No attempts will be made to review them here. Instead, the focus will be on the impact COVID-19 has on science and technology in Africa. Even so, this short article does not do justice to the total effect of the pandemic on science and technology in Africa. For instance, the worst hit area is probably education, which must be discussed on its own right.

To give context to the discussion of the impact of COVID-19 on science and technology in Africa, it is important to know that there are probably over 100 disease outbreaks detected annually across Africa. Some of the outbreaks such as malaria, tuberculosis, cholera and Ebola, Lassa fever, Marburg hemorrhagic fever are endemic whereas others COVID-19 is novel. The associated pathogens pose challenges to rapid and effective response to disease outbreaks. Methods for quick identification, isolation, treatment, surveillance, and prevention of diseases must be available.

Episodes of disease outbreaks often leave indelible marks wherever they occur. For example, the Uganda Virus Research Institute, formerly the East African Virus Research Institute, was created to study disease epidemics such as Trypanosomiasis that devastated the population along the shores of Lake Victoria at the turn of the 20th century. Ghana’s Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research (NMIMR) was built in 1979 by the Japanese in honor of the distinguished Japanese researcher, Dr. Hideyo Noguchi, who died of yellow fever in 1928 while studying it in Ghana. Uganda’s Joint Clinical Research Centre (JCRC) started in 1990 to investigate HIV/AIDS. There are other similar institutions. Time will tell what legacy COVID-19 pandemic will leave in Africa.

African Union HQLooking at it differently, in 2009, the African Union (AU) adopted a comprehensive vision for the future, named Agenda 2063, as a blueprint for transforming Africa into a continent free of poverty, diseases and wars. The implementation of the agenda is underpinned by development of science, technology, and innovation on the continent.

As part of the implementation of Agenda 2063, the African Union (AU) established Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) in 2006. Its purpose is to enhance the continent’s capacity (health infrastructure, human resources, disease surveillance, laboratory diagnostics and preparedness) for rapid response to health emergencies and disasters. Divided into four: central, eastern, northern, and western regional centers located at Libreville (Gabon), Nairobi (Kenya), Cairo (Egypt), Lusaka (Zambia) and Abuja (Nigeria) respectively. The institute could not have been founded at a better time than before the COVID-19 pandemic. A pertinent question to ask now is how the pandemic has impacted the implementation of Agenda 2063?

Although the infection rate of COVID-19 in Africa has been relatively low compared to that of Europe, North and South America, the pandemic has had a devastating effect on science and technology in Africa as elsewhere. Yes, some people regrettably died from the virus, but most of the devastation come from secondary effects. It is the measures imposed to mitigate the direct effect of COVID-19 which caused and continue to cause mayhem on science and technology in Africa.

When international travel bans were imposed, they cut the supply-chain between the developed and developing countries of many commodities needed for medical treatments, scientific research, and technological development. Industrial productions were similarly interrupted. For example, South Africa’s manufacturing output reportedly dropped by 49.4% year-on-year in April.

While some African countries have been deservedly lauded for being prepared to handle the pandemic, the continent did not have the capacity and readiness to mass produce testing kits, diagnostic tools, and medicine. Most of the testing kits used in Africa were donated or bought from industrialized countries. However, when it became obvious that even the developed countries did not have enough supplies for their own needs, the adage “necessity is the mother of all inventions” kicked into gear. Some African countries began to look for local solutions.

It is fair to say that almost every country began to produce the simplest items such as home-made and factory-made face masks and hand sanitizers. The more capable countries (South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya) began to rave up production of PPE (gowns, masks, gloves, shields) in addition to face masks and hand sanitizer.  

When it became clear that the pandemic was not going to disappear any time soon, some African countries concluded that the solution to their needs for testing kits will not come solely from donations from wealthy donor individuals, organizations or governments who had thus far donated millions of PPE and test kits. Consequently, various institutions of higher learning (Makerere University, Kenya Medical Research Institute and other centers in Nigeria and Cameroon), began to develop ventilator prototypes. Both Nigeria and South Africa developed the automated walk-through sanitizer. Though still in use, it is thought not to be unsafe. Several countries (Uganda, Algeria, Senegal) were driven into making their own test kits. Ghana’s Naguchi Institute for Medical Research acquired the capacity for sequencing the hereditary materials (DNA and RNA) of viruses and other pathogens. Sequence data will be used for multiple purposes including identification, monitoring disease outbreaks, control, drug, and vaccine development. Meanwhile a Nairobi-based iGovAfrica company created a novel contact tracing App called mSafari.

It is also interesting to note that several African countries have the capacity for extensive rapid disease response due to their previous experience with epidemics such as Ebola, HIV, tuberculosis, and others. They are leveraging their knowledge and re-purposing some of the technology and materials for dealing with COVID-19. Many national research institutions and private companies are also working on or have already produced testing kits. For example, the Loop Mediated Isothermal Amplification (LAMP)  method which was previously used for a rapid diagnosis of other pathogens like Zika virus, trypanosome, HIV, etc. is now being re-purposed for rapid testing of COVID-19. It requires simple machines and is quicker than the slower and costlier Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) test.

The persistent nature of the pandemic has now encouraged many countries to think about producing vaccines. However, what is involved in vaccine development and production: research, equipment, facilities, personnel, production, packaging, storage, distribution, delivery into the body, data collection, etc., have unquestionably prohibitive cost. It would be wise for countries to work together on a regional or continental basis. By pooling resources, the continent is more likely to succeed in developing vaccines. In fact, many of them are now collaborating with big pharmaceutical companies instead of going it alone.

The impact of COVID-19 on Africa is not all negative despite the worst that was predicted due to its many short comings. The continent, together with its allies, are taking advantage of the pandemic to move on with the implement of Agenda 2063. Allies from the developed world are not doing Africa a mere favor because they know that no country is safe from any pandemic unless all countries are safe. To that effect, early last month, a consortium of wealthy individuals and organizations donated $100 million to support the Africa Pathogen Genomics Initiative to Boost Disease Surveillance and Emergency Response Capacity in Africa. Obviously, this is not the only initiative taken in Africa to meet the challenges posed by this and future health challenges.