Monday, 15 April, 2024
HomeVaccine ResearchAfrica must rise to reap benefits of vaccine research – virologist

Africa must rise to reap benefits of vaccine research – virologist

Top virologist Oyewale Tomori says Africa should prepare to take advantage of the several  important breakthroughs in medical science recently, among them, Crispr, mRNA, next-generation cancer treatments and game-changing vaccines.

Speaking to the The Conversation, Tomori, a virologist with decades-long involvement in managing diseases in Nigeria, gives his verdict on the most significant discoveries and what they mean for Africa.

Are these extraordinary times for discoveries in medicine?

Yes, indeed, the world is living through extraordinary times, but not every part of the globe has the luxury of these ground-breaking discoveries in medicine. Time stands extraordinarily still for some people in the world, in terms of the application and translation of the accelerated discoveries for medicine.

Which two do you find the most exciting?

The two I find most exciting, among so many other discoveries, are the new mRNA vaccine technology and the two malaria vaccines.

The advancements made in the generation, purification and cellular delivery of RNA have enabled the development of RNA therapies across a broad array of applications. For instance, RNA therapy destroys tumour cells in cancer.

Messenger RNA (mRNA), as the name suggests, is a messenger protein molecule that has the ability to deliver a specific set of instructions to the cells of the body to make pieces of protein. Once the protein particles are made, they show up on the cell’s surface. The presence of the protein alerts your immune system to mount a defence and create antibodies to fight off what it thinks is a possible infection. The body learns to recognise the viral protein as an enemy.

As an example, when the Covid-19 vaccine is injected into the body, the cells are instructed to generate the spike protein normally found on the surface of SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing Covid-19. The protein the body makes in response to the vaccine causes an immune response without a person ever having been exposed to the virus that causes Covid.

Later, if the person is exposed to the virus, the immune system will recognise the virus and respond to it. The mRNA vaccines are safe and they neither alter the DNA nor cause Covid-19 infection.

The technology is cost-effective and relatively simple to manufacture and can be applied to the production of other vaccines, especially for the neglected diseases so common in Africa. mRNA is a transformative technology for vaccine development to control infectious diseases.

And regarding the malaria vaccines, the RTS vaccine in 2021 and the R21 vaccine this year, though not accelerated discoveries like vaccines for Covid-19, are a huge step in the right direction. This is particularly exciting for malaria endemic areas of the world.

What do these breakthroughs mean for Africa?

The mRNA technology will serve as a template for the development of vaccines against long-standing diseases so common in Africa: Lassa fever and other viral haemorrhagic diseases, as well as cholera, meningitis for instance.

How can African countries ride the wave of breakthroughs?

Africa’s vulnerability to lack of access to vaccines was clearly exposed during the pandemic. This calls for greater vaccine-manufacturing capacity and capabilities across the continent.

Despite numerous declarations in support of vaccine manufacturing in Africa, the local industry is still nascent, with little progress made. The continent is producing less than 1% of its required vaccine doses.

We must realise that investment in science, research and technology will produce significant returns.

Funding science and technology is a good economic bet. A recent report suggests the long-term payback is in the order of 20% a year.

Africa’s poor public funding for research is well documented. In 2006, member countries of the African Union committed to spending 1% of their GDP on research and development. But by 2019, this was only 0.42%, in sharp contrast to the global average of 1.7%.

The continent has about 25% of the global burden of unrelenting endemic communicable diseases, and a rapidly escalating incidence of non-communicable diseases.

Efforts should be channelled to find solutions to Aids, malaria, tuberculosis and other neglected diseases, including Ebola, Lassa fever and mpox.

African countries must reduce their dependence on donor-funding for local research, but also stop pleading for the crumbs of equity for their health security, social well-being and orderly economic development.

Oyewale Tomori – Fellow, Nigerian Academy of Science


The Conversation article – Breakthroughs in medicine: top virologist on the two most important developments for Africa (Creative Commons Licence)


See more from MedicalBrief archives:


Africa makes inroads in stamping out neglected, tropical diseases


Public health in Africa: Neglect, dependency and now a ‘moral tragedy’


WHO's second malaria vaccine will save millions of lives


Africa to produce new malaria vaccine?







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