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Research universities’ multiple responses to COVID-19

24th April 2020

By Emmanuel Abbey, Emmanuel Adu-Danso and Ernest Aryeetey

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a devastating effect on education worldwide. Schools and universities have been shut down, like everything else. Universities around the world have responded positively, intensifying research to find solutions, assisting their governments in developing ways to contain the pandemic, and finding other channels to deliver on their mandate.

Universities in Africa have not been any different, even if their level of engagement has been on a lower scale, largely because of fewer resources.

This article looks at how leading African universities have generally responded to the pandemic in their countries, with a focus on the 16-member African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA).

Research to support vaccine development

All ARUA universities have taken the initiative to engage in research to understand the virus within the local context and to support the search for a vaccine.

The University of Pretoria in South Africa, by its participation in the World Health Organization’s multi-centre clinical trial for Africa, is working towards the project objective of accurately estimating the effects of antiviral treatments on in-hospital mortality.

The university is also leading a South African Medical Research Council study on the development of a rapid test method. Other research initiatives include collaboration with the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, Australia, aimed at profiling risk in South Africa using whole-genome profiles; and research on bats as potential carriers of the virus at the university’s Centre for Viral Zoonoses.

Scientists at the University of Ghana have successfully sequenced the genome of the coronavirus in Ghana. The feat, which was achieved through collaboration between scientists from the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research and the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens, represents an important milestone in understanding the variations of the virus.

The Noguchi Memorial Institute, which is one of two facilities initially designated for testing COVID-19, remains Ghana’s primary testing facility for all suspected COVID-19 cases, accounting for over 80% of tests nationally.

A team from the University of Cape Town, led by Professors Anna-Lise Williamson and Ed Rybicki, is working on HIV-1 vaccines for South Africa, using technologies such as soluble trimeric spike protein production for HIV Env in animal cells and plants, and use of DNA and poxvirus-based vaccine vectors for HIV protein delivery.

They complement this with the activities of scientists at the Biopharming Research Unit at the University of Cape Town using the DNA and poxvirus and cell culture and plant production approaches to develop candidate vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 S protein and its related genes. There are other efforts to develop antibodies for COVID-19, for instance, by mining monoclonal antibody genes from survivals and the establishment of immunoassays and enzyme immunoassays for antibody detection for sero-surveillance.

At Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, a COVID-19 research working group comprising faculty from different colleges and research institutes has been allocated an amount of ETB10 million (US$307,000) by the state. Their focus areas include psycho-social and economic impacts, epidemiological and clinical, molecular epidemiology, vaccines and diagnostics development.

Also, two faculty members from the Association of African Universities formed part of the COVID-19 Clinical Research Coalition, which aims to accelerate research on the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 in low- and middle-income countries.

Research conducted by Makerere University in Uganda has detected coronaviruses in bats which live near humans in Rwanda, while studies by researchers at the University of Nairobi in Kenya have found that 10% of bats carry coronaviruses.

The University of Nairobi has been selected to play a leading role following the selection of Kenya by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a testing site for vaccine trials. A team of virus specialists from the university form part of a national task force.

Engagement with African governments

Most ARUA universities have had their scientists working on the frontline in different countries towards:

(1) Understanding the epidemiology of the virus and testing suspected cases;

(2) Addressing questions related to the virus via various webinars, media platforms and public education initiatives;

(3) Identifying the most effective treatment for the coronavirus;

(4) Supporting the provision of health care for the sick;

(5) Predicting and anticipating the trajectory of the virus in local communities;

(6) Offering policy options for the containment and treatment for the virus as well social intervention programmes to mitigate the impact of measures and controls on the most vulnerable;

(7) Developing crucial medical supplies which are in short supply across the globe.

Some of the notable efforts by ARUA member universities are outlined below.

Tracking, modelling and testing for the virus

The availability of accurate and timely data has been very important in tracking the spread of the coronavirus. Some universities have developed dashboards to model issues related to the COVID-19 phenomenon.

At the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in South Africa, an interdisciplinary team of researchers led by Professor Bruce Mellado from the school of physics has developed an intuitive and interactive dashboard to track and model the spread of the virus based on information from local sources, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases and the WHO.

The dashboard provides a day-by-day account of the tests and recorded infections and nuances in the data by province. The dashboard also tracks demographic information related to the cases and various transmission routes.

With regard to testing, Wits, in partnership with private foundation Gift of the Givers, has opened a COVID-19 testing station on the Braamfontein Campus. For a small facilitating fee, referred potential patients can get a test from the centre. The facility has a turnaround time for results of between 24 and 48 hours

At Addis Ababa University, faculty of the university form part of the national COVID-19 taskforce working with the Ministry of Health. They are involved in providing advice, supporting evidence generation and provision as well as mounting surveillance in health facilities and burial sites. The Ministry of Health in Ethiopia has earmarked the university’s lab facility at the Aklilu Lemma Institute of Pathobiology as a centre for testing potential COVID-19 cases in the country.

The University of Pretoria has a transdisciplinary team from its faculty of health sciences and the department of mathematics and applied mathematics that is engaged in modelling of the pandemic in South Africa. Pretoria also has a repository at the department of data science to provide real-time data on COVID-19 infections globally.

The university, through its department of medical virology, has also established a functioning and accredited COVID-19 testing facility to augment the number of testing facilities in South Africa, while the department of family medicine has developed a community-oriented primary care research unit which is engaged in various outreach projects including COVID-19 screening in rural communities. The faculty of health sciences is providing support to homeless people in the Tshwane area as well as screening and testing for COVID-19.

The Centre for Information Technology and Systems at the University of Lagos in Nigeria has developed a website that provides live updates on COVID-19 cases by state in Nigeria.

The department of mathematics and applied mathematics at the University of Cape Town is working on the epidemiological modelling of COVID-19 in Cape Town.

Voluntary medical support

In most African countries, owing to the growing number of reported cases in local and government hospitals, medical professionals are already becoming stretched. In many places, medical personnel on leave or retirement who are willing and able to serve have been recalled. ARUA universities have been supportive of the effort through volunteers.

At the University of Pretoria, for instance, senior medical students have volunteered their services to support doctors with COVID-19 related projects and tasks. Also, academic staff and clinical postgraduate students of Makerere University have been retained in major health facilities and priority fields following a request from the Ministry of Health. And faculty and postgraduate students of the University of Nairobi continue to offer support at major and local hospitals in Kenya.

Similar stories can be found at the University of Ghana, University of Cape Town and Wits. Several undergraduate students at Stellenbosch University’s faculty of medicine and health sciences have also volunteered to serve at various levels of frontline work in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hand sanitisers, protective equipment, ventilators and treatment support

All over the world, there is an acute shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health personnel. Countries that used to be net exporters of the equipment have either run out of stock or are keeping it to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic in their own nations, leaving almost all African states, which essentially import equipment, with a huge deficit.

Many African leaders have been calling on local firms to switch to the production of the lifesaving equipment as part of efforts to help protect the lives of frontline health professionals. A good number of ARUA members have responded to the calls using what is available to them.

The production of affordable hand sanitisers has been one of the most attractive options open to universities in view of the rising prices of the imported product. At Rhodes University in South Africa, a team from the Sterile Products Laboratory in the faculty of pharmacy initiated the production of WHO-accredited hand sanitisers to meet its own needs and that of hospitals and facilities within the province when suppliers failed to deliver. With support from the private sector, the team aims to produce 300-450 litres a day.

At the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, a team from different departments and faculties has produced hand sanitisers to address shortages in the market, and provide a low-cost option for the university community. The faculty of pharmacy at the University of Lagos has also produced and donated hand sanitisers to the Lagos University Teaching Hospital to support efforts aimed at fighting the coronavirus in medical institutions.

Similarly, Addis Abba University Institute of Technology in Ethiopia is producing hand sanitisers for local use, while the pharmacy department at Makerere University in Uganda has expanded the production of hand sanitisers to meet a growing domestic demand.

Food scientists at Stellenbosch University in South Africa have also made 18 litres of alcohol-based hand sanitiser from stale bread crumbs in an in-house fermentation tank although efforts towards further development were hampered by the imposition of a lockdown. At the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, they are in the final stages of obtaining approval for the mass production of hand sanitisers and masks.

Engineers and students at the faculty of engineering and the built environment at Wits have been involved in producing face shields and breathing assistance devices for use at local hospitals, while the University of Pretoria’s MakerSpace centre is producing 3D-printed visor frames to be used as facial shields by health workers. The 3D printing laboratory of the division of orthopaedic surgery at Stellenbosch University has been repurposed to print and assemble much-needed visors for frontline workers.

Addis Ababa University is also now producing PPE including face shields and bubble helmets to be used by health workers and patients.

Africa has the lowest number of ventilators in the world. As in other parts of the world, there is great interest in ventilators. A faculty member at Rhodes University in South Africa, Professor Justin Jonas, joined a national task team as technical advisor to produce ventilators for South Africa. Rhodes is also fast-tracking efforts to develop a low-cost and rapidly deployable ‘Ambu-bag’ ventilator and work on adaptation of existing ventilators to cater for up to 10 patients at a time.

The school of public health at Makerere University is collaborating with Kiira Motors Corporation and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation in Uganda under the Resilient Africa Network project to develop open design low-cost ventilators to meet local demand.

Public education, sensitisation, advocacy and mental health

Public education has become key to supporting efforts at stopping the spread of the pandemic. For most African economies, functional literacy remains low, and superstition tends to be rife in addressing public health concerns. ARUA members are providing leadership and support in these areas to local and national governments.

The Centre for Deaf Studies at Wits University launched initiatives to filter information on the pandemic, self-protective measures and government programmes aimed at curbing the spread of the disease to hearing-impaired communities in South Africa. Some students of the university have also been engaged in the production and translation of educational posters and comics on the coronavirus.

In addition, over 50 academics from Wits were part of a group of 78 who petitioned the president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, outlining key economic interventions that were needed to support vulnerable households and keep the economy running.

The University of Pretoria’s faculty of health sciences has developed guidelines to ensure mental health support for health workers and students, including those involved in COVID-19 initiatives. Various faculties are developing COVID-19 education material and videos on preventative measures for public education.

Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria has produced educational handbills in English and Yoruba to support efforts at educating the public on the pandemic.

Makerere University has developed an online Coronavirus Resource Centre to provide comprehensive and fact-based information on the virus to the public and policy-makers. The university’s school of public health, in collaboration with the Ugandan Ministry of Health, designed and organised a training and sensitisation event for organisations on preparing the workplace for COVID-19.

Kenya’s University of Nairobi has initiated a public blog and webinar series on COVID-19 which highlight preventive measures and offer options to deal with various COVID-19 related social challenges.

Other developments

There have been many other promising developments in the wake of the pandemic. A professor of pulmonology at the faculty of medicine and health sciences at Stellenbosch University has a double robotic robot that allows medical staff to perform ward rounds virtually, especially among intensive care patients, thereby protecting medical staff from the risk of infection.

Additionally, Stellenbosch and a South African biotechnology company have partnered towards the development of human therapeutic proteins which they hope will assist in the treatment of patients with severe effects related to COVID-19.

The University of Dar es Salaam has gone into the mass production of automatic hand wash machines following work by a final-year electrical engineering student in 2019. The university is also engaged in multidisciplinary research on the efficacy of traditional medicine for COVID-19 treatment.

The University of Ghana has a new 617-bed teaching hospital which is now used as one of the care centres in Ghana.

The Wits Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct is being used as a tech hub for the province to manage the pandemic, while the University of Pretoria is in conversation with several global and African partner universities to develop rapid response grant opportunities to support COVID-19 initiatives.

Dr Emmanuel Abbey is the ARUA-UKRI (African Research Universities Alliance – UK Research and Innovation) project coordinator, Dr Emmanuel Adu-Danso is the ARUA network manager and Ernest Aryeetey is the secretary-general of ARUA.

This story was first published on University World News on 23 April 2020