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Africa should be the driver, not co-pilot, of malaria vaccine development, argues Tom Egwang.

Today (25 April), as Africa Malaria Day is marked, the continent desperately needs a malaria vaccine. But current candidates have all been conceived and designed in the North.

If future Africa Malaria Days are to celebrate triumphs against malaria rather than lament its victims, we Africans cannot simply be conduits for Northern partners to access field sites for patient materials and clinical trials.

Home-grown solutions are feasible

African researchers in resource-poor countries are as competent and knowledgeable as their Northern partners. They publish research articles in leading peer-review journals, present findings at international conferences, read the same literature and attend the same symposia.

So why aren't they designing malaria vaccines themselves? The stock response to this — as it seems to be to all Africa's development challenges — is a lack of funds. But putting pen to paper to design a vaccine does not cost money. It takes creativity and innovation — attributes that we on the continent surely possess.

Getting the policy emphasis right

Effective research and development (R&D) does, of course, need funding. But to say that the lack of malaria vaccine R&D in Africa is due to poverty is a lie.

African governments can afford to buy presidential jets and bail out floundering companies. They maintain huge defence budgets and engage in recurrent military adventurism. These actions cost the continent hundreds of millions of dollars — money that could instead be used to develop malaria vaccines.

Similarly, petrodollar profits from oil-rich states like Gabon, Libya or Nigeria could be used to support malaria R&D efforts within and beyond their own borders.

The European Union — a region that has no malaria — currently supports a multi-million dollar network of excellence in malaria research. These funds could, again, have been better spent supporting R&D efforts in Africa.

Misguided funding policies have been accompanied by lopsided training policies that have created a polarised malaria research world.

Great efforts have been made over the past 30 years by the World Health Organization to train African scientists in conducting studies in the field — but not in basic science. For each African receiving a PhD in biochemistry, immunology or molecular biology in 1980, a dozen or more received PhDs in epidemiology or public health.

This has resulted in an uneven playing field — while the North is home to drug and vaccine discovery gurus, the South is dominated by experts in field studies.

Changing attitudes

The problem is that this situation has almost become part of the African psyche. Indeed, waiting for a malaria vaccine from the North is symptomatic of a more serious African malaise — being comfortable to be co-pilots, rather than drivers, of development in our own countries.

 

For example, the year 2015 is not far off, yet Africa is sorely lagging in progress towards the UN Millennium Development Goals.

This hands-off, conservative attitude must change. African scientists running R&D projects must make herculean efforts to mentor a new generation of Africans to tackle malaria vaccine R&D head-on. This also means lobbying their governments to invest in research — before the North-South divide becomes an abyss.

University curricula should emphasise product development and entrepreneurship. Strategic partnerships with African organisations like the Uganda Industrial Research Institute would facilitate the development of pilot biotechnology projects.

In this way, products developed by academia could be scaled up on a semi-industrial scale for proof-of-concept studies.

African policymakers have hitherto only paid lip service to African science. They must now embrace it as the engine for socio-economic development in Africa, giving it unequivocal and solid financial support.

The recently announced Uganda Millennium Science Initiative to improve undergraduate science curricula and support technology platforms and cutting-edge research is a laudable — if small — step in this direction.

Tom Egwang is director-general of Medical Biotechnology Laboratories in Kampala, Uganda.

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