The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed healthcare systems beyond their limits and disrupted economies, posing severe threats to livelihoods across the globe. This tragedy has, in effect, laid bare the real obligations of nations through the exposure of the frailties of our health systems and, to some extent, the degree of investments in science, technology, engineering, and maths (collectively referred to as STEM). This pandemic is a litmus-test of our investment in STEM and presents an opportunity for governments and policymakers to re-examine their commitments to STEM as a tool for achieving UN Sustainable Development Goal 3 – ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages.
Harnessing every technological innovation and human resource at our disposal to fight the COVID-19 pandemic brings us a step closer to conquering it. As demonstrated in the global response to the present crisis, STEM plays a vital role in swiftly assembling valuable solutions for tackling the pandemic. Biotechnology promptly revealed the SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) genome sequence, and consequently, the expeditious development and rollout of numerous COVID-19 vaccines, accelerated the development of diagnostic kits as well as enhancing the ability to assess the emergence of more virulent or resistant strains. Based on this genome sequence and advancement in vaccine biotechnologies over the years, buoyed by financial support from governments, scientists have generated multiple COVID-19 vaccines at unprecedented speed. Information technology has enabled the development of online coronavirus tracking tools for visualising how quickly and widely the virus is spreading globally, and ensured our daily businesses went on nearly-normally through virtual space; engineering expedited the construction of two Coronavirus hospitals in China in just over a week. Artificial intelligence and machine learning play a pivotal role in better understanding and addressing the COVID-19 crisis by processing large volumes of data to identify patterns and insights for faster and better decision-making.
Earlier in the COVID-19 outbreak, Europe and USA universities and research institutes sprang into action to supplement hospital laboratories in offering specialised and resource-intensive COVID-19 testing. Scientists, laboratory space and equipment from universities are supporting governments’ testing efforts to combat the pandemic in many countries worldwide. This leveraging of the scientific workforce employed in universities and research facilities is the fruit of proactive investment in research infrastructure and human resource development by national governments.
On the contrary, while most (if not all) African governments are struggling to keep up with COVID-19 testing demands, the involvement of African universities in testing is negligible. For instance, in Kenya, apart from the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) and the National Public Health Laboratories, which were mainly tasked with COVID-19 testing, out of over 50 public & private universities, only two university-affiliated institutes are reportedly supplementing the government’s effort, and with limited capacities. Our testing capacity would be significantly higher if only half of these institutions had the requisite infrastructure for testing. This inadequacy is perhaps an indictment of below-average research capacities and insufficient investment in sciences in our local universities.
An oft-overlooked yet critical aspect of increasing the quality of STEM education is attitude change. A 2017 survey conducted in Kenya shows that STEM courses have lost popularity to business courses at university, due to the notion that there are relatively limited absorption opportunities for science graduates relative to those completing business-orientated courses. Reversing this notion will need not only aggressive STEM advocacy but also an expansion and bolstering of investments in science and technology, as envisioned in Agenda 2063.
Lastly, we need to reflect on how Africa is presently contributing to combating the pandemic. A COVID-19 vaccine development mapping tool developed by the University of Notre Dame shows a disproportionate disparity in COVID-19 vaccine development. Over 200 vaccines development initiatives are currently in different phases, mainly in Europe, the Americas, and Asia. Africa is barren in this regard. Why? Do we lack the requisite human resources? No, the continent has well-trained scientists who are competent in virology, genomics and cross-sectoral collaborations for vaccine development. The main pitfall is insufficient funding.
There is not a single production site on the continent to scale up the production of the vaccines that are being deployed on the continent. African governments, perhaps through the African Union, should consider rapidly establishing a vaccine production site for scaling up to meet vaccine demands on the continent. This of course, will need addressing IP issues with relevant entities.
One lingering question is whether Africa’s only contribution to the development of a vaccine is being a field site to study the efficacy of vaccines developed elsewhere. Whereas this is in itself a significant contribution in advancing vaccine development, it is time to complement the global north in the quest for vaccines, not only for COVID-19, but especially by taking a leading role in research and development of endemic diseases vaccines!
“Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent, they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute.” J.G. Ballard.
Hussein Abkallo is a Kenyan Biotechnologist with a Ph.D. in Medical Sciences. You can reach him on H.Abkallo@cgiar.org