Senior African academics and scientists have positioned a new initiative of African universities and research institutions as an important step forward in accelerating disease and pandemic responses on the continent through research and development.
The initiative, The Sisulu Foundation, was announced on 22 June and will offer training, research and development in diseases and pandemics to offer timely and innovative solutions to diseases from the African research ecosystem.
South Africa’s Walter Sisulu University will collaborate with five universities, research institutions and a score of scientists in the establishment and implementation of the pan-African foundation.
The university will collaborate with North-West University and the African Vaccination and Immunisation Centre at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University in South Africa.
Other partners include the University of Nairobi’s KAVI Institute of Clinical Research; L’Institut de Recherche en Santé, de Surveillance Épidémiologique et de Formation (Institute for Health Research, Epidemiological Surveillance and Training, IRESSEF) from Senegal; the University of Botswana; the Mother and Child University Hospital of the Jeanne Ebori Foundation, Gabon; the University of Bonn, Germany, and Slovenia’s National Institute of Biochemistry.
Professor Rushiella Songca, the vice-chancellor of Walter Sisulu University, said that the initiative gives African scientists the much-needed opportunity to collaborate in finding solutions to the continent’s health challenges.
“It is poignant when the World Health Organization (WHO) and donor countries ask: But where are the African scientists and their solutions in times of pandemic? The COVID-19 pandemic exposed huge gaps, but these are also huge opportunities,” remarked Songca.
Collaboration is key
Hannes Malan, responsible for commercialisation and technology transfer at North-West University, said that the foundation “aims to cover the full value chain of [combating] diseases and pandemics in Africa”.
This is from drug and vaccine development to facilitating the establishment of production capacity and enhancing public health and pandemic management systems.
Malan told University World News that participating universities, research institutions and scientists bring their specific fields of interest and expertise, and collaborate with others.
The foundation members, he said, can collaboratively execute projects on diseases and pandemics. But, consortia within the group can also submit their project proposals and, upon acceptance, the projects will become part of the portfolio of projects for fundraising by the foundation.
Accepted projects must be collaborative with more than two members participating and must be pan-African – in other words members from at least two African countries must be involved.
The foundation has a scientific advisory board and its membership is largely drawn from the constituent universities and research institutions forming it.
Malan said that the board will advise on the scientific value and priority of the proposed projects and the global pandemic landscape.
The Sisulu Foundation will be publicly launched at the end of September this year and announce its first approved projects. Malan said that already “several exciting initiatives are in [an] advanced [stage of] development among our members”.
However, founder members have nominated positions on the board of directors of the foundation, from which strategic direction, lobbying and fundraising will be planned and executed.
“The Sisulu Foundation structure is designed to encourage and accelerate tech transfer between African countries. It should not be lost that, maybe for the first time, we acknowledge that African scientists may have the technical capability to get the job done, albeit in isolated pockets of excellence across the continent and the world,” said Malan.
He added that the foundation members believe that a collective, collaborative effort will unlock significant advancement for the continent.
The funding challenge
Dr Patrick Amoth, the director of health in Kenya’s Ministry of Health, said the announcement of the foundation should be a call to action for African scientists and their counterparts around the world to participate in tackling the continent’s health challenges.
Amoth, who is also the chairman of the executive board of the WHO, lauded the foundation’s membership that comprises senior African research fellows in vaccines and virology.
Professor Stephen Kiama Gitahi, the vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi, agreed that complementary nodes are very important in the development and production of vaccines and other medicines across Africa.
“We are delighted to be on board with this ambitious venture. Our KAVI Institute will lead the East African node and will work closely with our partners in the rest of the continent and Europe to develop solutions to the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and use the lessons learned to prepare our country and the region adequately to deal with future infectious disease threats,” said Gitahi.
Professor Souleymane Mboup, a microbiologist and medical researcher who founded IRESSEF in Senegal, expressed optimism about the initiative.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us a hard lesson. It is imperative for African nations to become self-sufficient, as a collective, when it comes to vaccines, medicines and pandemic control.
“If we don’t research possible solutions, we won’t develop them, and if we don’t develop them, we won’t manufacture them, and if we don’t manufacture them, we will again stand at the back of the queue when a global pandemic breaks out. The Sisulu Foundation is a catalyst for jointly addressing these aspects.”
But Malan warned that having in place support and sustainable funding, especially from African governments and international funding agencies and philanthropists, could be a challenge to the foundation.
Adapted from University World News