The Senegalese politician calls on Africa’s governments, private sector and scientists to create endogenous resources and solutions to reduce the continent’s scientific dependence on the West.
Science is undoubtedly one of the most essential foundations of our modern societies. It not only provides a better understanding of how the world works, but also plays an essential role in improving education, designing our responses to global challenges such as global warming or disease, but also in improving the overall quality of our lives and building a better world.
Research must accompany all development policies because it is at the beginning, throughout and at the end of any social and health development process.
Africa was the cradle of the first mathematicians and the African health culture, rich in a wide variety of traditherapies, also dates back to the dawn of humanity.
Historically, African health innovation has been limited by insufficient investment in research and development. Although the African continent accounts for nearly half of global deaths from communicable diseases, sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only about 1% of global scientific output.
While the continent has a wealth of scientific talent, the lack of investment in scientific research and development has limited the continent’s ability to develop effective treatments and vaccines for most common diseases.
The sad reality is that Africa’s scientific talent often migrates to wealthier regions where resources are more abundant. This “brain drain” causes the African continent to lose about 20,000 professionals to higher-income countries each year. The International Development Research Center even claims that there are more African scientists in the United States than in Africa.
African scientists are in the best position to devise solutions to the continent’s health problems. We must have a leadership role; our unique experience and expertise allow us to identify solutions that work in a local context. As we know, the continent accounts for the majority of global cases and deaths from malaria, tuberculosis and HIV-related diseases. Africa also suffers disproportionately from new diseases such as Ebola and older diseases such as rabies and leprosy.
So we have everything to gain by tackling these problems head on. As scientists, we owe it to our communities to maintain and increase research into the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of these diseases.
Addiction and distrust
It is time to act, as the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical role of scientific innovation for health. Currently, Africa – a continent of 54 countries and 1.2 billion people – imports nearly 99% of its routine vaccines and between 70 and 90% of its medicines.
This not only normalizes dependence on more developed countries for vaccines and medicines, but also contributes to distrust of health care and science.
Solutions led from Africa
Why? Because communities are questioning the motives of the large foreign institutions that provide them. In response, we need new solutions led and funded from Africa to build public trust and ensure that the right solutions are in place.
Strengthening the regulation of medical products on the continent is also essential. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 1 in 10 medical products in low- and middle-income countries are non-compliant or adulterated, putting hundreds of thousands of lives at risk.
The African Medicines Agency (AMA) -a specialized agency of the African Union- is currently examining this issue to ensure the safety and quality of all medicines on the market and to build public confidence in them. It aims to encourage investment to build regulatory capacity in Africa, provide guidelines, coordinate regulatory systems and national efforts.
It recently established a treaty to improve access to quality, safe and effective medicines. Several member states have signed the treaty to date, but to have a real positive impact on health across the continent, all African nations must commit to a strong regulatory system.
Waiting for immunization
Our reliance on “imported” science impacts Africa’s access to health as a whole, from preventive medicines, to personal protective equipment, to diagnostics and treatment.
We are most vulnerable to disruptions in supply chains and high transportation costs. Most recently, during the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, we could only see the non-priority of Africa, and the first vaccines were distributed to the richest countries.
Making vaccines in Africa
It is estimated that people in low-income countries will have to wait until 2023 or 2024 to be sufficiently vaccinated against the coronavirus. The pandemic has shown that we cannot rely solely on Western resources.
We can therefore only be pleased to see various initiatives being developed and taking shape. Among them, that of the Pasteur Institute in Dakar, which will host a vaccine production platform against COVID-19.
Priority to research development
The goal of the Pasteur Institute of Dakar being to cover more than 20% of the continent’s needs by 2022 and then, in the medium term, to manufacture other vaccines.
More than ever, we must prioritize the development of the resources, research, and infrastructure needed to inspire, stimulate, and retain the continent’s scientific minds and thus bring their research to life.
Impact on economic growth
And this will not only help improve health on the continent: increasing R&D spending to 1% of GDP, a target set by the African Union, will also have a significant impact on economic growth, by reducing the economic burden due to disease and increasing national output.
While governments must take the lead in driving these advances, the private sector, academia, and civil society must also play their roles.
Helping young entrepreneurs
This month, for example, I am honored to open the Young African Health Innovators Award, an initiative launched by a coalition of pharmaceutical companies, businesses, and civil society actors.
Among other things, the award will provide much-needed financial assistance to three young African entrepreneurs, thereby supporting and scaling the development of promising new innovations in the health field.
Investing in Education
In the short term, we urgently need additional resources-new laboratory equipment, cutting-edge tools, and funding for new ventures-and we need to address the regulatory barriers that prevent us from delivering new, quality treatments to patients.
In the longer term, we also need to invest in the education of young scientists, to inspire a new generation and bring a fresh perspective to the continent’s challenges.
It is high time for our governments, scientific leaders, and private sector to come together and put African research and development at the top of their agenda.
Awa Marie Coll Seck is Minister of State to the President of the Republic of Senegal, having previously served as Minister of Health. She is also the chair of the scientific committee of the Galien Africa Forum.
This op-ed was first published by SciDev.Net.