Africa Must Develop Its Own Solutions To COVID-19, Say Experts Across The Continent
Rwanda uses robots to deliver food, drugs & other necessities to quarantined patients, reducing healthcare workers’ exposure to COVID-19.

19 June 2020 (Ibadan, Nigeria) – We are at war with COVID-19, a war we must win to survive, said Dr John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control, on Friday at a workshop on “Home-Grown Solutions to the COVID-19 Health Crisis,” hosted by the United Nations Development Programme.

Since the continent’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported in Egypt in February 2020, the virus has spread across Africa to every country on the continent. However, initial grim predictions about the pandemic in Africa have yet to pass – a development that Nkengasong attributed to early measures that were taken to minimise the pandemic’s impact.

But four months into the pandemic, the Africa CDC Director noted that current measures including social distancing, wearing face masks, handwashing and movement restrictions will be inadequate in curbing the virus on the continent.

“We have to innovate ourselves out of the war,” Nkengasong said.

John Nkengasong, Africa CDC Director

From the outset of the pandemic, African countries have been scaling up cooperation; Africa CDC has also been coordinating response efforts including procuring diagnostic kits, drugs PPEs for African countries. Nkengasong noted that ongoing collaboration and communication among member states of the African Union will help in accelerating the continent’s journey to recovery from the impact of the pandemic on Africa economies. 

“We cannot unlock economies safely without expanding COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and getting effective treatment,” he said. He also identified diagnostics, vaccines and therapies as important components that must be in place to put the end of the pandemic within reach.

Efforts around these key issues have been advancing globally. Health Policy Watch recently reported the emergence of dexamethasone as an effective treatment in reducing mortality in patients with severe COVID-19 by up to one-third. 

Still, Nkengasong noted, relying on international cooperation alone to develop potent tools for the disease is ineffective.

Opportunities for Innovation Across Africa

Workers manufacture PPE in a Kenyan factory

When Rwanda deployed anti-epidemic robots to aid its response against COVID-19, it became a major example of opportunities for innovation. Clare Akamanzi, Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Rwanda Development Board, noted that the robots have reduced the risks of exposure of the country’s health workers to COVID-19 by taking over routine activities such as temperature checks, food and drug delivery to individuals that tested positive and have been quarantined.

Global shortages of surgical masks and personal protective equipment compelled the country to look inwards for solutions; including importing machines from China to enable local production of much needed health consumables.

“76 local companies are now manufacturing face masks in Rwanda, three are making surgical masks while one is making PPEs – all have been certified by the Rwanda Food and Drugs Authority,” Akamanzi said.

She also mentioned the utilisation of 3D printing technology to make face shields for healthcare workers and the deployment of drones to enforce lockdown and social distancing rules by taking pictures of areas where public gatherings are being held.

Dr Julie Makani, Tanzanian medical researcher, noted that the multi-sectoral deployment of innovations during the COVID-19 pandemic would provide African countries with tools that can be converted for other health services.

For example, she pointed to a number of African countries, including Nigeria and Ghana, that are also deploying telemedicine to ensure that individuals living with sickle cell disease have access to professionals. 

Home Grown Solutions for the Continent

Bience Gawanas, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations

While Rwanda’s pandemic robots were donated by UNDP, Bience Gawanas, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, argued that Africa can also play a more central role in developing the tools that the continent will use to combat the pandemic beyond simply mobilising already existing innovations.

She noted that limited capacities made it difficult for many hospitals in Africa to make use of donated equipment – a problem that could be addressed if Africa were the one that is providing the innovations. Moreover, she noted that Africa is in a better position to define its own priorities – which could differ from one country to another in the middle of the same pandemic.

“This is not just a health issue, it is also a social issue. Necessity is the mother of all invention and Africa’s economic independence will only happen when it changes from relying on foreign products to a continent that can produce,” Gawanas said.

As just one example, several African youths are repairing ventilators, and local innovators in Nigeria and other African countries have also presented prototypes of cheaper ventilators that could save lives, potentially providing easier access to the lifesaving devices that are in short supply globally.

However, controversies surrounding Madagascar’s COVID-19 cure claim brought attention to the continent’s scientific research ecosystem and existing gaps in clinical trials protocol. Author and researcher, Dr. Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu, noted that such developments may be due to the inability of African researchers to afford a conventional clinical trial. 

She noted that COVID-19 has confirmed that Western countries alone can no longer be relied upon to solve all of the world’s health problems and Africa should maximise the opportunity presented by COVID-19 to revamp, improve and localise its drug research strategies – putting the continent’s priorities and peculiarities into consideration. 

“Africa might hold the key to the solution of health challenges that face the whole of humanity which is why we need clinical trial processes that the continent can afford. Current approaches can only be funded by pharmaceutical giants that are driven by profits,” Esiobu noted.

The Enemy from Within

Pharmacy technician working on production of herbal medicines

Before the continent will be able to convince the rest of the world that its drugs and other innovations can be trusted, Ssali Rose, Managing Director of Ssali Publishing House, noted that Africans need to get over negative perceptions about locally developed medicines, especially one that equates local medicines to witchcraft (an esoteric practice).

“We need to decolonize our minds and accept that we must craft our own solutions so that we can quickly get ourselves out of the situation that we’ve found ourselves in. African governments also need to relax barriers so that it would be easier for one innovation from one part of Africa to be adopted by other African countries,” Rose said.

While agreeing that Africa needs to take a more central role in the development of tools for its healthcare sector, Nkengasong noted that the continent’s innovators, governments and other stakeholders must ensure that Africa’s innovations go through the rigor of scientific testing so that the rest of the world will begin to take solutions from Africa more seriously.

“Victory will be continental but the battle will be won locally,” Nkengasong said.

Image Credits: Twitter: Rwanda Ministry of ICT and Innovation, APO/MOH Kenya , AMR Industry Alliance.