The programme, called Networking for Ethics on Biomedical Research in Africa (NEBRA), was created to understand ethical issues arising in individual African countries, and to identify people already involved in reviewing ethics of research and identify their needs.
Funded by a European Union grant, the initiative is a collaboration between four African countries — Benin, Gabon, the Gambia and Mali — and European partners, including the UK Medical Research Council (MRC).
Imogen Evans, clinical research and ethics liaison manager at the MRC, told SciDev.Net that the initiative stemmed from the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership, whose mission is to speed up the development of clinical trials for drugs to treat HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis in developing countries.
Achieving this goal requires there to be sufficient capacity for reviewing research ethics in African countries, said Evan, but added that there is little information about what capacity already exists.
The sheer size of the continent would have made it impossible to include all African countries in NEBRA project. Instead, it will focus on the 15 countries in west and central Africa that opted to participate in the pilot scheme. If successful, the programme could then be extended to the rest of Africa.
To identify the extent of Africa's scientific ethics capacity, experienced postdoctoral researchers from the 15 participating African countries will interview a range of individuals — from health ministers to university representatives — to discover the existing ethics structure in each country.
The main goal of the initiative, said Evans, is to boost African countries' own scientific capacity and also to make them international players in biomedical research. She added that African countries are conscious that it would benefit their own people to participate on an international level, if more research was initiated from within.
The first stage of the programme will last for 18 months. The next stage, which will depend on new funding, would be to strengthen existing structures and, where appropriate, foster links between the countries.
NEBRA's other European partners are the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM), the World Health Organisation and the University Eberhard Karls, Tübingen, Germany.
The other participating African countries are Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo.
For more about the ethics of research, visit SciDev.Net's Ethics of Research dossier