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International bodies are offering true research opportunities, but African funding is needed to prepare the ground, writes Linda Nordling.

Twenty years ago, there were no research jobs available for people such as Dereck Tait, a South African then working in the United Kingdom's pharmaceutical industry, in his home country.

But last year Tait returned to become director of clinical development for the African office of Aeras, a non-profit organisation working on vaccines against tuberculosis (TB). From his base in Cape Town, Tait leads a project due to start later this year to test the efficacy of a new vaccine (M72/AS01E) in Kenya, South Africa and Zambia.

"Much more money is going into research now," he says.

Tait is not the only TB researcher to have returned to South Africa in recent years. The country has one of the highest incidences of the disease in the world and drug resistance is rife, making it an ideal location for scientific research.

Another South African, Willem Hanekom, trained and worked in the United States before returning in 2005 to become director of the South African Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative (SATVI) at the University of Cape Town. His university hosted the Third Global Forum on TB Vaccines last month (25–27 March) — the first time this meeting has been held Africa.

And, last year, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute opened the doors of its new KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV (K-RITH) in Durban, on South Africa's east coast. This is the institute's first lab outside the United States.

Modern research

These researchers are not just doing clinical trials. Both K-RITH and SATVI also conduct research at the cutting-edge level that, until recently, was mainly found in America or Europe.

The growing interest among international research agencies and funders to locate more of their work in Africa is a great opportunity for the continent. But to capitalise on it, African governments must invest in the basic infrastructure required to do science.

It is not just the disease burden that makes South Africa attractive to TB researchers; the country's well-resourced universities, decent roads and relatively research-friendly laws also play a part. South Africa's government has had a hand in creating these beneficial conditions for investment. But it could do more.

It spends nearly US$600 million a year on treating and preventing TB. But in comparison, its research and development (R&D) spending on the disease is a pittance, according to research by David Walwyn, a technology management expert at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, published this year in Health Research Policy and Systems. [1]

Walwyn says that the South African government should boost its annual R&D spend on TB from the current US$3 million to more than US$90 million. The country would make this money back and more, he says, by having more efficient and cheaper treatments, through earnings from

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