When Nigeria discovered its first coronavirus patient – an Italian citizen who works in the country – public health officials weren’t the only ones who responded quickly. So did a group of scientists and researchers who got to work and sequenced the genome of the COVID-19 virus found in the patient.
Their work became the first African sequence for SARS-CoV-2 (the technical name for the virus) that was uploaded to a database in the United States. It’s there that the NextStrain organization maintains a real-time map of the COVID-19 virus, as scientists around the world seek to understand where it travels and crosses borders, if and how clusters of the coronavirus outbreak are connected, and what the genetic markers tell them about how it’s evolving.
“It clusters with other cases linked to Italy,” said NextGen as the Nigerian case went up.
The successful contribution came from the teamwork of partners in the Nigerian scientific community, from the hospital in Lagos affiliated with the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) that first diagnosed the case, to the genetic sequencing work done at the African Centre of Excellence for the Genomics of Infectious Disease (ACEGID), directed by Dr. Christian Happi.
ACEGID, at Redeemer’s University in Ede, alongside the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR), said the time from when they received the sample to the complete sequencing was three days. The work allowed them to see the smallest ancestry clues, the fingerprints in nearly 30,000 base pairs of genetic material, and they too concluded that the COVID-19 strain was consistent with samples from Italy and the travel history of the Nigerian patient.
The contributions of African scientists
The work at ACEGID, which began with a World Bank investment in STEM initiatives in eight West African nations in 2014, connects its scientists with universities all over the world and holds infectious disease research as a top priority. That’s critical during the COVID-19 outbreak, which has now reached 101 countries including nine African nations, but the scientists also work on Nigeria’s ongoing Lassa fever challenges and the Ebola outbreaks on the continent.
“I’m grateful for the strong collaboration that enables Nigeria to contribute to science on COVID19,” said Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, an epidemiologist who directs the NCDC. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization, praised the Nigerian team for sharing their work in solidarity with the world.
The success points to how well many African nations are doing in responding to the outbreak, especially when facing some of the sobering economic and resource challenges. Security crises, access to health care, housing quarters and humanitarian camps, and even clean water for hand washing can become barriers to preventing the spread of the illness.
The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) has worked closely with the World Health Organization to prepare the continent, said Dr. John Nkengasong in a statement on Sunday. “It’s important to emphasize that we anticipated that this would happen and have been planning for response,” he said.
Nkengasong said there are now 43 laboratories in as many African countries that have been trained by the CDC to isolate and transport the virus, and test for it in the laboratory.
“For member states that do not yet have the capacity to conduct the test, Africa CDC is facilitating their linkage to the closest capacitated laboratories within the continent,” he added. “We have trained them on how to transport specimens across the border and we are monitoring how they do this to ensure the quality of tests conducted. Some of the countries are now conducting genomic sequencing of confirmed cases in their countries.”
Science and the African future
While these successes are all critical in combating the coronavirus epidemic, they also point to something else: The need for African scientists and investment in their expertise. Perhaps equally important is the need for the global community to respect the contributions and the experience of African researchers across a range of disciplines.
That was the call that came earlier last week from Professor Oliver Phillips of the University of Leeds, a co-author of a study on carbon sequestration in rain forests of the Global South. The entire planet depends on these forests, but we are losing them to deforestation, logging and fires just as we most need them in the fight against climate change.
Scientists from key institutions in 11 African nations, from Ghana and Gabon to Tanzania, participated in the comprehensive study published in the journal Nature. They provided invaluable data and insights to help make the world aware of the threat to the forests, which have already lost the capacity to absorb atmospheric CO2 in an amount equal to the combined emissions of the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Canada.
“For too long the skills and potential of African and Amazonian scientists have been undervalued. We need to change this by ensuring their work is properly supported,” said Phillips. “It will fall to the next generation of African and Amazonian scientists to monitor these remarkable forests to help manage and protect them.”
The excellence in COVID-19 and climate research both demonstrate just how critical African expertise is to the rest of the world, whether it’s focused on renewable energy in Morocco or biodiversity on Madagascar. We need to ensure the success of African science continues, now more than ever. We also need to thank African scientists for their work and acknowledge its value in a far more inclusive scientific future.
Images: ACEGID, Nextstrain