On February 27, 2020, Sub-Saharan Africa reported its first case of the coronavirus (COVID-19). The patient was an Italian man living in Nigeria, who had just returned from Milan in Italy, which was then a cluster for the disease in Europe.
Shortly after the patient was identified, a sample of the virus was sent to a small town called Ede, located in Osun State, southwestern Nigeria, over 200 kilometers away from Lagos. There, a team led by Professor Christian Happi, analyzed the sample and was able within 48 hours to share the very first genome sequence of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) from Africa with the global science community— faster than what was being done in some developed countries and, more importantly, much faster than sending it to a laboratory overseas.
Why is this groundbreaking? Less than a decade ago, most – if not all – of the country’s virus sequencing was conducted in laboratories abroad. By the time the results came out, the virus would have had time to spread, mutate, and patients could die.
Happi, a Cameroonian national, spent 12 years at Harvard University as a research scientist before moving to Nigeria to join Redeemer’s University—a private institution in Osun State. What brought him to Nigeria is a geographical enigma: when he found out that the Lassa fever, which causes acute viral hemorrhagic illness and took the lives of hundreds of Nigerians every year, was tested all the way from Germany, Happi took on the challenge to develop the study of genomics within the country. For him, there was no reason why diseases affecting Africans could not be tested in the region.
The beginning of a journey
Today, Redeemer’s University hosts the Africa Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) , with Christian Happi as its Director. ACEGID was competitively selected in 2014 as part of the World Bank-funded Africa Higher Education Centers of Excellence (ACE) Program. Since then, ACEGID has developed a 10-minute Rapid Diagnostics test for Lassa fever, paving the way for the development of the next vaccine for the disease.
During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, between 2014 to 2016, the first case in Nigeria was confirmed and sequenced at ACEGID. The center further contributed to containing the epidemic in the sub-region through the development of a 15-minute Rapid Diagnostics. This method was approved by the World Health Organization and the United States of America’s Food and Drug Administration (USFDA).
African Scientists provide Home-grown local solutions to regional and global problems
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that solutions ought to be developed in Africa and adapted to the African context. For instance, Happi’s team at ACEGID developed yet another fast-track test for COVID-19, certified by the USFDA. It costs around $3, much less than Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests. In addition, the test does not require highly equipped laboratories that tend to be too expensive.
ACEGID has also built a partnership with the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Nigeria CDC and other international groups. In September 2020, the World Health Organization named ACEGID one of two (the other from South Africa) specialized continental reference sequencing research laboratories for emerging pathogens, including SARS-CoV-2.
African scientists lead the way
Today, the field of genomics is rapidly growing in Africa and is spearheaded by ACEGID. The center is expected to inaugurate a $4 million building by the end of the year – the biggest genomics research center in Africa. Earlier this year, ACEGID has been selected by the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University to be part of a prestigious scientific coalition that will help setup an early warning system to prevent and respond to future outbreaks and pandemics–a timely opportunity in the efforts to defeat COVID-19. Dr Christian Happi also received the highly distinguished Baily Ashford Medical award in November 2020, where he has been recognized for his significant scientific contributions
Another exciting development in Nigeria, is the ACE for Neglected Tropical Diseases and Forensic Biotechnology (ACENTDFB). Led by Professor Y.K Ibrahim, the ACENTDFB is performing mass testing. In a collaboration with the Kaduna State Government and University Teaching Hospital, ACENTDFB established a facility where COVID-19 samples are analyzed. The facility is part of the Nigeria CDC national testing centers.
In Ghana, the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP), led by Professor Gordon Awandare, in collaboration with the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research, prides itself of its high-caliber research in training the next generation of biomedical scientists. Originally from Kenya, Joyce Ngoi and her team at the center have sequenced the genome of the virus and learned about the genetic composition of 46 cases in the country, allowing them to pursue the genomic analysis of the virus in Ghana.
African scientists have a lot to offer, not only to the continent but to the international community. Their research is paramount and it can no longer be overlooked. It must be leveraged. Building the capacity of African researchers and institutions to train the next generation of research scientists and address epidemics is no longer an option, but a necessity. Strengthening research collaboration and partnerships between academics and researchers across the continent and the world is crucial in facilitating the development of diagnostics and medical countermeasures during epidemics.