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[CAPE TOWN] Medical researchers in the Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville) have been empowered to set their own research priorities through a funding mechanism backed by a French oil company, according to scientists speaking at the second European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP), in South Africa this month (5 November).

In 2011, the Congolese Foundation for Medical Research signed an agreement with TOTAL, stipulating that the energy giant would fund specific research activities and pay salaries.

This enabled the foundation to set its own research priorities — a break with the usual funding constraints whereby researchers' priorities are dictated by foreign funding agencies.

Francine Ntoumi, executive director of the Congolese foundation, says the TOTAL funding is used to run clinical trials on rotavirus vaccines for children in the country.

Rotavirus is the leading cause of diarrhoea in children: in Congo-Brazzaville, it is responsible for more than 10,000 deaths annually, and one of the country's most pressing health challenges.

"It is the first time in my country that we understand the disease situation […] and it is very exciting," says Ntoumi. "We are also investigating the prevalent rotavirus strains, and will then introduce an intervention — the vaccine — and discover its real impact," said Ntoumi at the EDCTP conference.

The partnership between TOTAL and the Congolese Foundation for Medical Research began with a fund of €130,000 (US$165,000).

Scientists at the foundation decided diarrhoea was high priority. They launched a study to assess the pre- and post-vaccine situation relating to the rotavirus vaccine, funded by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations, an international organisation that supports the rollout of vaccines in 70 of the world's poorest countries.

This year, TOTAL has allocated a further around US$190,000 — almost half the foundation's budget. Ntoumi believes this annual figure will continue to rise, as TOTAL has signed a five-year, 'blank cheque' contract with the company.

To date, the involvement of oil companies in socially responsible activities has been a mixed bag in Africa. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) health facility projects are often driven by public relations, with a focus on hyper-visible buildings rather than comparatively inconspicuous medical research or clinical trial programmes, which are expensive to boot and often produce inconclusive results, researchers say.

Another issue is that recipient governments sometimes fail to grasp how to approach oil companies or what to demand from them.  

African governments are just not asking for "meaningful things" from oil companies, says Apuk Ayuel Mayen, a counsellor from the South Sudanese embassy in Pretoria, South Africa.

And Ntoumi admits that convincing TOTAL to fund research was not easy.

What was useful in this case, said Ntoumi, was the EDCTP funding that allowed for training more than 20 scientists and buying laboratory equipment, which the scientists used to show moving progress at the Foundation. Nobody wants to support something from scratch, she adds.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.

Disclosure: EDCTP has provided funds for SciDev.Net's journalists to attend and report from the meeting. You can read their blog here.