Africa: 'Let's Use the Interconnectedness That Spread COVID-19 to Fight It'

20 May 2020
interview

Cape Town — AllAfrica's Esther Rose spoke with Dr Ify Aniebo, an infectious disease expert with a background in molecular biology and genetics, and who co-authored the Lancet paper: COVID-19 - Access to Lifesaving Medical Resources for African Countries.

Aniebo shares her views on the impact of the Coronavirus, the global response to the pandemic and the ethical obligations by world leaders to assist Africa in its efforts to prevent loss of life. 

You mention in your paper that there is a struggle for medical supplies - How do you think Africa could work toward not finding itself on the backfoot when medical crises occur?

Africa must invest heavily in science research and preparedness way before a pandemic occurs by governments committing to increase domestic investment in health-care infrastructure.  Just a handful of countries on the continent currently have institutions that can perform the functions of an effective National Public Health Institution- which includes the capacity to activate a rapid-response team for outbreaks, the capacity to carry out disease surveillance with diagnostic laboratory connection, and the ability to serve as an operation centre during a public-health emergency such as COVID-19.

We must invest in infrastructure that can put us in a position to manage a crisis when it occurs. These measures will enable us provide functions such as coordinating emergency operations, creating lab networks that can quickly diagnose and track the location and origin of emerging infections, disease surveillance within countries and border regions, develop and train a medical workforce that can collect, analyze and use quality data for decision making. Pandemic preparedness will be impossible to achieve without political and financial engagement from African governments and so it is important for all these to be driven by political will.

How far are we in finding a vaccine for COVID-19 - are we perhaps garnering false hope?

Many different companies and institutions around the world are racing to develop a vaccine in record time, using different approaches. As of 20th of May, The World Health Organization has a list of 76 contenders. Moderna was the first in the world to start clinical trials with an RNA vaccine, which uses a segment of genetic material from the virus itself, called messenger RNA, to provoke the immune system into making antibodies. Countries like the UK, US and China are working towards a vaccine but this may be available in 18 months. After this timeline will it be possible for African countries to get hold of vaccine for their citizens.

It's important to be hopeful. Having said that vaccine science is an uncertain business, and so we cannot ever be 100 percent sure that there will be a safe and effective vaccine. But experts are doing everything they possibly can in making sure that a safe and effective vaccine becomes the reality for millions around the world.

Africa has experienced Ebola, Lassa Fever, TB, malaria and many others, and now COVID-19. You refer to ethical obligations by world leaders to avoid loss of life in Africa, however, many are saying the narrative needs to change and Africa also needs to do things for itself. How is it possible to get collective, responsible action when some African leaders are claiming cures with herbal remedies and prayer?

World leaders have an ethical obligation to avoid needless loss of lives by ensuring African have access to reagents. Africa isn't asking for handouts, what the continent wants is equitable access to carry out testing. This is part of changing the narrative as Africans are trying to curb the spread of infections in their countries.

The pandemic has demonstrated that the world is interconnected. A virus that originated in Wuhan, China, has now spread to virtually every corner of the globe. The global community should harness that same interconnectedness to curb the spread of this pandemic, but this will be impossible if there isn't equitable access to medical resources. The reality is that no one in the world is safe until everybody is safe and by extension, no country is safe until every country is safe, due to globalization, regardless of economic standing.

A pandemic does not just disappear because of prayers. The number of cases in Africa are rising each day and I think a responsible government would prioritize scientific data over prayer – which so far, most African countries have been doing as seen by their actions which includes intervention such as testing, tracing, treating and lockdown - including flight and border restrictions. So Africa has made tremendous efforts during this pandemic and in some cases, even acted faster than their Western counterpart. So this should be applauded.

With regards to herbal remedies, it is imperative that claims of cure are backed up with scientific evidence. It is important data on the efficacy and side effects of herbal remedies are published and accessible. We need to uphold stringent forms of accountability for herbal medicine, just as we do and expect for Western medicine.

In your paper you mention the HIV/Aids pandemic and the inequitable distribution of medical supplies. And how Africa was the last to receive medication, with the result that millions of people died, how do we prevent the same thing from happening with COVID-19?

To solve this problem, we need solidarity within the continent and across the world.  Global protectionism exists with more than 70 countries imposing restrictions on the export of medical materials and as a result, access is difficult for Africa. It Is important that wealthier countries reserve some fraction of these medical supplies for export from an ethical perspective. Also, ensuring Africa has access to medical materials is beneficial to Western countries as it reduces their own risk of the disease being reintroduced. African countries must work together to negotiate as one large customer to prevent competition where export markets are open.

The continent needs to speed up the production of test kits. Plans for production are under way in Senegal, South Africa, Kenya and Morocco. In the meantime, Africa CDC has launched an initiative called Partnership to Accelerate COVID-19 Testing (PACT), with a goal to reach 10 million tests in the next four months.

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