AAS Open Research

Afrique One-ASPIRE fellows supporting the fight against COVID-19 in Tanzania, Ghana, Chad and Côte d’Ivoire

Covid-19 testing

The Developing Excellence, Leadership and Training in Science in Africa (DELTAS Africa) programme, funds Africa-based scientists to amplify the development of world-class research and scientific leadership on the continent while strengthening African institutions. DELTAS Africa is implemented through the AESA Platform. AESA (Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa) is a funding, agenda-setting, programme management initiative of the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD), founding and funding global partners, and through a resolution of the summit of African Union Heads of Governments. DELTAS Africa is supported by Wellcome and the United Kingdom Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO formerly DFID). The ongoing DELTAS Africa is a USD 100 million programme, funding eleven consortia spanning 54 institutions from Africa and 24 European institutions.

DELTAS Africa’s goal is to produce researchers with the capacity to publish and lead locally relevant and high-quality research to impact health science, policy and practice in Africa. To achieve this, the DELTAS Africa Theory of Change (TOC) is predicated on building research leadership through supporting growth of excellent research environments, scientific citizenship, research training and scientific quality.

This blog series explores how the eleven DELTAS Africa funded consortia were able to leverage on the TOC and pivot in real time to support an Africa-wide response to COVID-19, influencing research and policy across the continent and beyond.

Afrique One-ASPIRE builds Pan-African research capacity in One Health and provides research-based knowledge to control and prevent zoonotic diseases. Over the past year, fellows from the Afrique One-ASPIRE programme have played a vital role in controlling and preventing COVID-19 across Tanzania, Ghana, Chad and Côte d’Ivoire. In this blog post, we take a look at their activities, the impact they’ve made, and their valuable contributions to fighting COVID-19 in Africa.

Joining government advisory committees on COVID-19 – “we have gone from 100 tests to 1,000 tests per day”

In Chad, Mahamat Fayiz Abakar, one of Afrique One-ASPIRE’s postdoctoral fellows was appointed to the scientific council of the Ministry of Public Health, joining around 30 other experts to contribute his knowledge and skills. The council brings together physicians, biologists, veterinarians, economists, and human and social scientists to inform the national response to the pandemic.

Fayiz also became a member of the national health response coordination team, Coordination nationale de riposte sanitaire COVID19, a committee created by presidential act and led by the president himself. This team has the aim of developing and implementing the response to combat COVID-19 throughout Chad.

Dr Fayiz Abakar told us about his work on the two committees and what they’ve achieved:

With our multidisciplinary team, we have been able to considerably increase the capacity of diagnosis by involving institutions of higher education and also of the veterinary sector. This synergistic work has allowed us to decentralize the diagnosis, provide training, and also set up decentralized diagnostic laboratories. We have gone from 100 tests to 1,000 tests per day”.  

Joining a COVID-19 testing team and delivering training for health workers

In Ghana, three fellows from the program, Dr Gloria Ivy Mensah, Samuel Ofori Addo and Vida Yirenkyiwaa Adjei, tested samples for COVID-19 as part of the laboratory team in the country’s main testing centre at the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research (NMIMR).

Ghana conducted over 370,000 tests between March and mid-July 2020, making it one of the countries in the WHO Africa Region with the most tests per 100,000 population. Of the 229,093 COVID-19 PCR tests carried out in Ghana (as of June 4, 2020), approximately 80% were done by the testing team at NMIMR.

So how was this achieved? The team used “pooled sampling” – a technique which allows samples to be tested in pools of 10, following which only pools with a positive result are un-pooled and retested in smaller pools to identify the positive sample(s). Their efforts helped test more samples and shorten the waiting time for results from a week to two days.

Fellows supported the COVID-19 health-care response in other ways too. In Tanzania, for example, one postdoc fellow contributed to contact tracing at the beginning of the crisis. Training coordinator, Dr Kathy Kreppel, also provided training for health workers to enable them to protect themselves better from infection.

Understanding behaviour during the pandemic using a national online survey

Realising that there was a need to better understand perceptions and behaviour during the pandemic, in Côte d’Ivoire fellows developed a study to inform the management of the pandemic in the country.

The national online survey assessed the level of self-reported acceptance of and compliance with the government’s control measures. It also looked at the financial impact of the crisis on people’s lives and identified factors explaining non-compliance with measures.

Principal investigator of the project, Dr Richard Brou Yapi, shared insights from the study and what they learnt:

Our survey found that people with a low level of education and general distrust in the recommended measures are more reluctant to adopt preventive measures in the fight against COVID-19. Elderly people, above 60 years, often lack access to information, which shows that additional efforts from the government are required to reach all age groups”.

Responding to the disease in the animal sector

Another key area of work in Côte d’Ivoire was looking at responses to the disease in the animal sector. Here, veterinarians advocate the importance of a multi-sectoral approach in the fight against COVID-19. PhD fellow, Dr Vessaly Kallo, participated in a television programme to raise awareness about the risks of infection for both domestic animals and humans.

Awareness raising and community engagement: exchanging views and experiences on the lived realities of COVID-19

From the first days of the pandemic, Afrique One-ASPIRE has been involved in various awareness raising activities, including talk-shows and TV interviews. The Director of the consortium Afrique One-ASPIRE, Professor Bassirou Bonfoh, featured as an expert during several webinars on COVID-19.

Researchers produced short videos no longer than 2 minutes called “the COVID Minute”. Aiming to improve public understanding of COVID-19, these covered key topics including mask-wearing, fake-news, mental health, and strengthening the immune system with a balanced diet.

Funding from AESA also allowed Afrique One-ASPIRE to conduct a large awareness-raising project taking the form of a radio programme exploring the theme “Living with COVID-19”, produced in Côte d’Ivoire. This brought together scientists, health workers, public health and political authorities, and the general public to exchange views and experiences on the lived realities of COVID-19. Citizens were invited to call in, ask questions and air their concerns and grievances. As the show was broadcast, it reached a large audience that went beyond the country’s borders.

The importance of supporting research in Africa: final reflections

As all of the above captures, the fellows of Afrique One-ASPIRE have used their skills to support Africa in the fight against COVID-19 in many ways. From joining government committees, to volunteering at testing centres, and raising awareness in the community, their knowledge and skills have made a real impact.

Senior fellow, Dr Gloria Mensah, shares some final reflections on how the COVID pandemic has shown the importance of supporting research in Africa:

I will always think of the pandemic as the one unfortunate event in history that woke many people up to the fact that the world needs scientists and that especially on the continent of Africa, governments need to resource research institutions and actually budget for research and development while training a critical mass of research scientists”.