Why does Africa need a context-specific, evidence-based response to COVID-19?
The severe acute respiratory disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus (COVID-19) was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization in March 2020 and continues to be one of the most challenging public health crises in recent history. While the nations of Africa have recorded fewer cases and deaths from COVID-19 since the start of the outbreak than Europe, the Americas, Asia and the Middle East, there have been new waves and new variants of the virus, causing a resurgence on the continent. COVID-19 has had a disastrous impact on the continent’s already strained health systems and threatens to become a social and economic emergency.
Africa’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been hampered by many factors, including scientific uncertainties, scarcity of data that is relevant to Africa, the proliferation of misinformation and “fake news”, the fast-moving epidemiology of COVID-19 – manifest in the emergence and spread of new variants – a lack of access to actionable evidence, weak collaboration among critical stakeholders, and poor supply chain management for vaccines and required medical devices, as well for commodities. While new collaborative efforts such as the COVAX initiative are helping to bridge gaps in vaccine supply, the absence of a comprehensive approach to ensure vaccine access and equity in Africa and other developing regions threatens to prolong the pandemic, escalate inequalities, and delay the global economic recovery.
“As people living in richer countries hit the reset button this summer and their lives start to look normal, in Africa our lives will stay on hold. This is unjust. We are optimistic that vaccine availability will improve significantly in the second half of the year. We can still catch up and make up for the lost ground, but time is running out.”
—Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa
African policy makers must develop and implement policies that have the greatest likelihood of success in this rapidly evolving environment. To achieve this, policy choices must be contextually relevant for Africa – scientifically, culturally, economically, geographically – and must be trusted by citizens.
To this end, key stakeholders in Africa, including scientists, policy makers, funders, and health professionals must collaborate to determine priorities, review the science, and make their findings and policy statements transparent, accessible, dynamic, and informed by solid and relevant evidence.
How are African scientists, policy makers and other stakeholders supporting Africa’s policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
The African Science Technology and Innovation Prioritisation Programme (ASP) an initiative of the the African Union African Task Force on Coronavirus (AFTCOR), held a series of stakeholder engagement sessions (“tele convenings.”) The ASP is a programme of the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) of the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD) and other partners. Within three weeks of the first COVID-19 case being reported in Africa, the ASP identified Research and Development (R&D) priorities to confront COVID-19 from an African perspective. Over 1,400 African scientists and policy makers contributed to the identification of 17 priority areas for R&D against COVID-19 in Africa. These were further refined by the Science Standards and Regulatory Technical Working Group (TWG) of AFTCOR in collaboration with a broad range of experts, resulting in a shortlist of key priority areas (below) where in-depth scientific knowledge is needed for Africa to effectively respond to the pandemic. This guidance supplements the WHO roadmap; it was written in English and translated into Portuguese, French, and Spanish. Moreover, it informs COVID-19 R&D priorities not only for Africa, but also for low-to-middle-income countries (LMICs) worldwide. AESA, through the support of the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office East African Research & Innovation Hub (UK FCDO’s EARIH) is funding ‘tele-convening’ meetings of key African stakeholders to guide the preparation and packaging of research summaries and rapid reviews on the identified priority areas listed below.
R&D priorities for COVID-19 response in Africa:
- Transmission dynamics of COVID-19, epidemiology and surveillance
- Clinical characterization of cases and mental health
- Drug and vaccine clinical trials
- Modelling impact of COVID-19 on the health systems
- Social science and policy research
- Vaccine hesitancy (added later once Africa rolled out its vaccination programs)
Immediate and continuing outcomes of the initiative
This collaborative learning and exchange platform was created to support a context-led, evidence-informed policy response to COVID-19 in Africa. It has facilitated the engagement of key actors at the national, regional, continental, and global level, and has enabled stakeholders to build consensus in an intentional and coordinated manner, promote policy coherence during the pandemic, and help accelerate timely and actionable scientific evidence to inform policy decision-making. This collaborative platform is critical in tackling the immediate crisis posed by COVID-19. It also offers a model for African-driven scientific and policy collaboration to promote partnerships and best practices that will transform lives in Africa through science.