Dr. Margaret Karembu

The now “infamous” household name COVID-19 has caused unprecedented disruptions and brought our lives to a standstill. By end of March 2020, more than 800,000 people have been infected with the virus globally, with over 40,000 succumbing to it. More worryingly, these figures are increasing rapidly, an indication of the gravity of the pandemic.

Africa has more than 5,000 cases and some leaders in the region are warning of widespread infections in coming weeks. COVID-19 has ground everything to a halt with everyone fearing for the worst! Amid this pandemic, the world is looking for divine intervention and science to bring it to an end.

Indeed, our hope lies in science. Unfortunately, before the pandemic, leaders in the region did not give science the attention it deserves, with minimal funding allocated towards Science, Technology and Innovation research. Ironically, they are all now looking to scientists to unravel the mystery. Undoubtedly, cutting-edge science has proven invaluable in combating global challenges and pandemics. By far, bioscience technologies offer some of the most promising tools for developing COVID-19 vaccines. Among the candidates under clinical development are recombinant protein-based vaccines, a category of vaccines developed through DNA technologies. Recombinant protein-based vaccines carry recombinant vectors that effectively stimulate one’s immune system against viral infections, and are more stable, effective and safe (recombinant DNA technology is the joining together of DNA molecules from two different species. The recombined DNA molecule is inserted into a host organism to produce new genetic combinations that are of value to science, medicine, agriculture, and industry).

Currently, several pharmaceutical companies and research institutions in the North America, Europe and China have initiated development of this type of vaccines that promise to be a major breakthrough. Unfortunately, Africa will once again be a recipient as opposed to a pacesetter in this front.

One area of study that offers great prospects in the development of vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments for COVID-19 is Synthetic biology. The National Institute of Health (NIH) in the US has laid out plans for development of a coronavirus vaccine using synthetic biology, a process that uses genetic engineering to redesign an organism to produce medicines with abilities to fight infections within our bodies.

Investment in science, technology and innovation

This pandemic should be a wakeup call for African governments to invest more in science, technology and innovation (STI) to combat challenges such as disease epidemics, drought and food insecurity. Governments should enact policies that support and favour advancement in bioscience research and development (R&D).

Most African governments have continually underfunded research and development. According to UNESCO’s Institute of Statistics (UIS), Africa’s R&D funding in 2019 was estimated at 0.42% of the continent’s GDP, which was below the 2007 Abuja Declaration for African governments to invest 1% of GDP in R&D. The consequences are now hitting us hard as the continent is left behind while others strive to find a research solution against COVID-19.

In the developed world, governments, philanthropists and the private sector invest in ST&I. In return, research outputs from these efforts improve their citizens’ livelihoods and create thousands of decent jobs for the youth. Africa should replicate this initiative and establish or expand national research and innovation funds whose objective is to support priority biosciences R&D for the region.

Spread of misinformation

Alarmingly, misinformation red-alerts have been raised amid efforts to combat COVID-19. Myths and half-truths about the virus have become deadly weapons against any effort to contain the pandemic. In fact they have become more contagious than the virus itself.

Political undertones among world leaders have also played a significant role in escalating the misinformation. In Africa, myths that the virus does not infect Africans have been flying all over, hampering efforts to adequately prepare the continent against the disease.

Further, social media is inundated with all manner of propaganda about COVID-19, and sadly some people are buying it, weakening the fight against the virus. The gullibility displayed by a significant proportion of the digital community is a testament to the need for improving science literacy in our societies. The exponential growth of ICTS in the continent can be a good starting point to integrate with engineering, artificial intelligence and biochemical and physical sciences capacities in our universities.

Going forward…

For the public to fully pay attention and keenly listen to expert advice on coronavirus, scientists must simplify their language by breaking down technical terminologies into simple language that the audience can easily understand. Sharing analogies and visuals that the public can easily relate with is one of the most effective strategies. This was a key lesson from the Africa Biennial Biosciences Communication Symposium (ABBC2019), which took place in South Africa in August last year.

Apart from disease pandemics, climatic conditions such as drought and emerging crop pests and diseases may also threaten normal order and humanity. These conditions have become a major cause of food insecurity and poverty for our people who should now embrace modern technological tools to address food security challenges. God forbid that we don’t get anything like this in the agricultural sector, Africa’s economic mainstay.

This pandemic has taught us hard lessons on trusting science and expert voices. Our leaders now need to be more decisive and pro-active to avoid inevitable catastrophes. It is high time we all make science count.

Dr. Karembu is the Director, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter. You can reach her on mkarembu@isaaa.org