Sub-Saharan Africans join forces for TB vaccine research

[JOHANNESBURG] Researchers in Sub-Saharan Africa are playing a key role in the development of a new tuberculosis (TB) vaccine, following South Africa’s lead, a meeting in Johannesburg heard last week (20 March).

At the meeting, held before World TB Day (24 March), researchers launched a blueprint on TB vaccine research for the next decade, and discussed the role the country and the region will play in TB vaccine research.

South Africa has the second-highest incidence of TB worldwide, which makes it an appropriate place to test new vaccines. There are 1,000 cases per 100,000 people in South Africa, compared with around 200 in India and less than 100 in China, according to David Mametja of the South African Department of Health.

He added that South Africa has the highest number of TB cases per capita in the world.

Each year, there are about nine million new cases of TB and 1.5 million deaths. Most countries where the disease is endemic give children the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine, but this does not protect adults from pulmonary TB, the most common and infectious form of the disease.

There are 15 vaccines in clinical trials, and many more in preclinical stages of research and development.

Hassan Mahomed, co-director of the South African Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative (SATVI), said it was “important for Sub-Saharan Africa to take the initiative and develop a vaccine … There are excellent scientists in South Africa who understand the epidemic and can conduct research”.

Gavin Churchyard, chief executive officer of the Aurum Institute, a non-profit research organisation based in South Africa, agreed. “South African researchers are playing a leading role internationally in research and diagnostics,” he said.

South Africa is collaborating with nine other institutions in Africa. For example, SATVI has formed partnerships for clinical trials with research institutions in Kenya, Mozambique and Uganda.

SATVI, according to Mahomed, is leading the way in South Africa.

“We have tested five vaccine candidates and have led eight vaccine trials,” he said, adding that phase 2A clinical trials are currently being conducted on one vaccine candidate — MVA85A — with results expected early next year.

“This is the first time we’ll have efficacy results, to determine if this trial prevents TB. We’ll be making history,” said Mahomed.

Africa-wide monitoring tool aims to boost food security

Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla


28 March 2012 | EN | FR

African scientists
The initiative will give stakeholders access to integrated data from a wide range of information sources


[JOHANNESBURG] An innovative tool for monitoring agricultural production and ecosystem health in Africa could boost food security and decrease environmental degradation across the continent.

The Africa Monitoring System (AMS) tool was launched last month (23 February), and aims to provide real-time integrated data on agriculture, ecosystems services and human well-being, assembled in six indicator categories, whichpolicymakers and organisations can use to better understand trade-offs that result from increased agricultural production.

Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania will be the first countries to contribute data to the tool, in the first of three phases targeting five regions in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The US-based non-governmental organisation Conservation International is a co-leader of the project, and Sandy Andelman, CI’s vice president, said data will be collected by automated sensors as well as manual observations and measurements from technicians. Data will also be incorporated from  household surveys using smart phones.

“The data will be summarised into a set of holistic indicators and displayed on [an open access] web-based dashboard. Raw data and analytical outputs will be available through the web as well as various customised reports on particular topics,” she told SciDev.Net.

Policy nodes at national, sub-national and international scales will be established, and regular input from policymakers will be obtained to ensure they understand the service and are receiving relevant information from it.

Andelman, who will serve as AMS executive director, said the tool’s target audience will be policymakers at the international, national and regional level, donors, agricultural extension systems, non-governmental organisations andfarmers‘ associations.

He said farmers would also benefit indirectly through improvements to livelihoods and the maintenance of ecosystems.

Keith Shepherd, chief soil scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre, Kenya, said the system would help generate more evidence-informed decisions.

But he warned that “one of the key challenges will be good planning and coordination across multiple agencies so that everything comes together into a smooth operation”.

“If standardised and systematic processes with good quality control are not put in place, we may just end up with a lot of messy data from different sites that cannot be combined,” he said, adding that data handling, statistical analysis and interpretation, and obtaining sufficient investment were also potential challenges.

AMS is headed up by CI, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa and the US-based Earth Institute, and has received significant funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

AU teams up with Microsoft to advance ICT

Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla


28 May 2008 | EN

The MoU will prioritise young and rural populations

Flickr/World Bank Photo Collection

The African Union and Microsoft have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that seeks to catalyse the development of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the region.

The major components of the MoU include ICT capacity building and enhancing technology access — particularly among the young and rural populations.

It is unclear when the policies will be implemented. Microsoft’s Claudia Toth says, “So far we have identified key areas of cooperation but have not yet laid out the details of specific projects. The next step will be to decide which projects will be executed.”

Toth says the overarching goal of the programme is to overcome some of the barriers to ICT access, such as living in remote areas, poverty or lack of computer skills.

“Once they have acquired these skills, people are able to find information on the Internet more easily, secure better employment because they are skilled, and hopefully have a better chance to start and run their own businesses more efficiently,” she says.

“Governments, in many cases, have asked for advice on the implications of policy development with regards to ICT. Through our partnership with the AU, Microsoft will explore how it can support AU member countries in this regard.”

The AU–Microsoft partnership also aims to provide support for the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) e-schools (see Africa’s schools connect to the 21st century) and e-parliament programmes.

The e-schools programme aims to equip every school in Africa with computers and Internet access by 2013, and the e-parliaments project aims to enable parliamentarians to source and share information.

NEPAD signed its own MoU with the Global Digital Solidarity Fund — an international foundation which funds ICT for development — in April to jointly fund the programmes.

Since the e-schools initiative was launched in 2003, just eighty schools in fifteen countries have had computers and printers, local networks, audiovisual equipment and Internet connectivity installed.

The AU–Microsoft MoU was signed at the International Telecommunication Union Telecom Africa Conference in Egypt this month (15 May).


Cross-border malaria research rewarded in Africa

Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla, Esther Tola and Christina Scott


12 June 2008 | EN

The money will go into further research, including final-stage trials of a malaria vaccine for children


Four African institutions carrying out malaria research have won an international cooperation award from the Prince of Asturias charitable foundation in Spain for their joint efforts.

The award, announced last month (28 May) and worth €50,000 (around US$77,000), went to Ghana’s Kintampo Health Research Centre, Mali’s Malaria Research and Training Centre, Mozambique’s Manhica Centre of Health Research and the Ifakara Health Research and Development Centre in Tanzania. They are scheduled to receive their awards in October this year.

The centres carry out biomedical research, vaccine trials, demography research and local training of personnel.

Ogobara Doumbo, director of the Mali centre, told SciDev.Net the award would help expand successful strategies such as insect-repellent mosquito nets and occasional (intermittent) preventative drug treatment for children and pregnant women.

About 80 researchers have been working on clinical trials of malaria vaccines at four sites in Mali since 2003, including molecular biologist Abdoulaye Djimdé, who developed simple techniques to monitor drug resistant malaria parasites from a drop of blood on filter paper.

Doumbo says they are now working on candidate vaccines targeting the early phase in the parasite’s life cycle in the human bloodstream.

The money will be ploughed straight back into further research, says John Aponte, head of the statistics unit at the Barcelona Hospital Clinic and a member of the team at the Manhiça Centre of Health Research.

Aponte said final-stage (phase three) trials of the RTS,S malaria vaccine for children under five years should begin in late 2008 or early 2009 at 11 centres in Burkina Faso, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania.

Commentators say that the awards are a sign of Africa being at the forefront of solving African health problems.

“Mozambique and Africa are starting to lead the path toward solving their own health problems, and to deliver useful solutions to the rest of the world,” Graça Machel, president of nongovernmental organisation the Community Development Foundation in Maputo, who has worked with the Manhiça Centre for 12 years, said in a press statement.

”The work of the recipients reflects their respective commitment to cooperation across national and institutional boundaries — the type of cooperation that will be needed to effectively combat malaria at the global level,” said Christian Loucq, director of the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative, in a press statement.


MSF criticises Lancet undernutrition series

Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla


23 January 2008 | EN | FR

A malnourished child with biscuits used in refeeding programmesA malnourished child with biscuits used in refeeding programmes

Flickr/Julien Harneis

A series of articles on maternal and child undernutrition in The Lancet has drawn a severe rebuke from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

In a press statement released last week (13 January), the non-profit medical organisation said the series fails to address key areas of treatment, mainly home-based care and ready to use food treatment (RUF), and is actually “undermining efforts to promote urgently needed change”.

Milton Tectonidis, nutrition advisor for MSF’s campaign for access to essential medicine says, “Frankly, the series is out of date. It fudges the numbers of deaths by wiping off kwashiorkor [a form of malnutrition] and by using prevalence figures instead of incidence figures to calculate the annual death toll.”

“Home-based care with RUF revolutionised the treatment of severe acute malnutrition in young children. As a supplement to breastfeeding and traditional complementary foods, these spreads are highly effective in the first two to three years of life,” he adds.

With regard to home-care as opposed to hospital care, Tectonidis says, “It is impossible to expect to treat all these children with therapeutic milks in hospitals. Outpatient treatment encourages earlier presentation and improves programme results.”

Zulfiqar Bhutta, professor of paediatrics and child health at Aga Khan University in Pakistan, and one of the authors of the Lancet series, says, “Our estimates represent the most unbiased and up-to-date numbers on severe acute malnutrition using accepted and comparable criteria in various populations.”

“We reviewed all available evidence on the use of RUF in both facility and community settings. MSF may have additional unpublished data of which we are unaware, but if they do not make it public then we cannot be expected to refer to it,” he adds.

“We hoped MSF would have engaged in a scientific debate through genuine discourse instead of going public with a press release,” Bhutta told SciDev.Net.

Esté Vorster, director of the Africa Unit for Transdisciplinary Health Research at NorthWest University in South Africa says she cannot understand why MSF is criticising the Lancet series.

The Lancet is a respected journal and is placing undernutrition — a largely ignored factor — on the agenda. Although some information is outdated, it doesn’t change the message,” she says. “For too long, developing countries have not paid attention to malnutrition. It is now being considered, and that’s what’s important.”


‘Cheaper, safer’ rabies drug wins prize

Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla and Christina Scott

7 January 2009 | EN

Rabies antibody can be difficult to get hold of in the developing world 


[JOHANNESBERG] Scientists in South Africa have won an award for work that could lead to a safer, cheaper treatment for people bitten or scratched by rabid animals.

GreenPharm — a spin-off biotechnology company based at South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) — won the country’s first Bio Business Plan award last month (9 December).

The scientists were awarded 100,000 rand (around US$10,600) in prize money and the possibility of investment of up to US$1.6 million.

When someone is bitten by a rabid animal, the ideal treatment is wound cleaning, neutralisation of the virus with an injection of antibodies and activation of the immune system with the rabies vaccine. But the expense of rabies antibodies means few supplies exist in developing countries, including most of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Zimbabwean plant biotechnologist Rachel Chikwamba, a research fellow at CSIR biosciences unit and principal investigator at GreenPharm, is leading a team using genetically modified tobacco to produce rabies antibodies.

The antibody drug, Rabivir, “is potentially cheaper than existing vaccines as it will be extracted using relatively simple technology from tobacco leaves, which are cheap to grow and can guarantee a reliable supply,” says Chikwamba.

She says Rabivir is likely to be safer than current antibodies. Samples of human or equine antibodies can be contaminated with potentially fatal pathogens such as hepatitis, “especially in Africa where serious blood-borne infectious diseases are prevalent”.

The drug is undergoing animal tests — due to be completed by the end of February — on infected mice, says Ereck Chakauya, a biotechnologist from the University of Zimbabwe and project manager at GreenPharm. Earlier laboratory tests indicated the antibodies were effective against the major African rabies strains.

If permission for human testing is obtained, CSIR plans to scale up production to supply the antibody to members of the Southern African Development Community. But Chikwamba warns: “It’s early days yet as the process entails completion of in vivo animal experiments, production of clinical batches and all phases of human clinical testing.”

The rabies antibodies could also be used in the manufacture of cheaper diagnostic tests for rabies, and in capturing samples of the rabies virus in the laboratory for genetic characterisation, says Chikwamba.

Rabies, a viral infection of the nervous system transmitted by animal bites, kills around 50,000 people each year, mainly in Africa and Asia.

Cultivating wild fruits ‘could boost African nutrition’

Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla


7 February 2008 | EN

Marula is particularly prized for its nutritional and economic value

Flickr/Sharlee H

Africa’s traditional fruits could boost nutrition, environmental stability and economic development if given the right scientific and agricultural support, says a report.

The report, by the National Research Council of America, was released last week (30 January) and is the third in a series by the council called ‘Lost Crops of Africa’.

A panel of experts from various African countries, with input from ordinary workers, looked at the sustainability of growing a range of indigenous African fruits and the effect it could have on combating malnutrition and poverty in the continent.

Twenty-four fruits were chosen for their potential to contribute to nutrition — particularly for children — and economic development. Among these are aizen, balanites, baobab, butterfruit, ebony, marula and tamarind.

Traditionally, according to the report, indigenous fruit grew wild and was not domesticated. With the advent of colonialism, fruits from Asia and America were introduced, and Africa’s fruits faded into the savannahs and jungles.

Mark Dafforn, who directed the study, believes farming these fruits will be extremely sustainable. “Their success will draw on local resources and local knowledge, and these are an ancestral heritage in which people can take justifiable pride.”

“[The fruits] have the added advantage of having survived conditions like drought and floods for millennia,” he told SciDev.Net, making them better suited than imported varieties.

The report advocates not only large-scale farming, but encourages individuals to select their best crops and share them with others for propagation, saying collaboration between amateurs and professional horticulturalist and scientists will be key to success.

“Even if just for home use rather than markets, they could lead to better nourishment in the general rural population, an essential foundation for any economic improvement in Africa,” adds Dafforn.

Jane Guyer, professor of anthropology at the US-based Johns Hopkins University and a member of the panel for the report, points out that these crops are already valued and used in many parts of Africa.

“These crops were never lost to the people; they have just been lost to the kind of agricultural science that focused mainly on internationally commercialised crops.”


Africa still dependent on satellite net access

Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla

1 August 2008 | EN | FR

Reels of fibre optic cable 

Flickr/mind the goat

Africa still relies heavily on expensive satellite connections to gain access to the Internet, according to a report released this month (July 23).

Over 80 per cent of African Internet use is routed through satellite connections, says the report by the South Africa-based telecommunications analysts BMI-TechKnowledge, who work in 40 African countries.

Efforts are underway to switch to using high-bandwidth fibre optic cables, with at least ten being built.

Engineering News reported BMI-TechKnowledge as saying that companies will spend more than US$6 billion on cable projects in the next two years.

Fast internet connections are essential for growth in business and other applications on the continent, but have so far either been expensive or rarely available.

Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania are the countries driving the demand for connectivity, according to Brian Nielsen, director of BMI-TechKnowledge.

“Currently all countries in East Africa and most in central Africa have no submarine cable connectivity and are relying on expensive satellite links from the United States and France,” he told SciDev.Net.

Landlocked nations are most affected. “Countries on the West and South coasts have access to the third South Atlantic (SAT3) undersea cable,” says Nielsen.

The private Seacom marine fibre optic cable, running from Madagascar and South Africa up to Egypt before branching to India and France will be ready by mid 2009.

But another project, the African West Coast Cable (AWCC), did not meet some of its July 2008 deadlines, reported Engineering News. Failure to finalise commercial and legal agreements means that the US$510 million cable through ten African countries will not be operational for its target date of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

And the East African Submarine System (EASSY) funded by the World Bank and the Development Bank of South Africa is behind schedule by at least a year (see Infighting plagues East African cable project).The cable will run from South Africa and Mozambique to Somalia, Sudan and Djibouti with terrestrial links to at least five landlocked African countries.

The US$2 billion Uhurunet broadband network project proposed by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development has not started, while other high-speed cable projects underway include The East African Marine System (TEAMS) from Kenya to the United Arab Emirates, due to start next year, and the Flag cable through the Horn of Africa.

Link to abstract of BMI-TechKnowledge report [100kB]

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