Do you want to develop vaccines in Africa? Then invest in know-how and infrastructure

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Aerial view of the UK National Synchrotron Diamond Light Source Ltd (Diamond) on the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire, © Diamond Light Source

In just over a year from the start of COVID-19, Scientist successfully developed Vaccinations against that SARS-CoV-2 virus for worldwide use.

Three main factors contributed to this exceptional achievement.

An unprecedented collaboration between international scientists. Second, the scientists were able to get extremely detailed images of the virus proteins and the human proteins with which they interact – right down to the positions of the atoms.

Third, know-how and infrastructure developed over many years involving tens of thousands of scientists, supported by national governments, and significant private investment. The development of this skilled workforce was only possible because the societies agreed to encourage their best researchers to solve acute problems by providing appropriate tools and resources.

The African contribution to this tremendous achievement turned out to be quite small. African researchers continue to be challenged by the lack of sustainable and accessible funding, infrastructure and expertise.

In late May, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that South Africa is “developing a local vaccine manufacturing plan to manufacture vaccines locally through strategic partnerships and technology transfer”. The aim is to cover the entire value chain of vaccine production. He said Africa wants to do things for itself and that

We also need to examine how the vaccine manufacturing capabilities developed during COVID-19 can be repurposed for future production of other vaccines and related technologies.

In this article we reveal how the three-year START (Synchrotron Techniques for African Research and Technology) program – funded by a grant from the Science and Technology Facilities Council of the UK Research and Innovation Council – has been instrumental in preparing South Africa’s capacity for this type of work. It trained students and postdocs at eight South African universities and the country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD). It also provided access to the UK’s national synchrotron, Diamond Light Source. Funded by a Global Challenges Research Fund of £ 3.7 million (approximately $ 5 million), the initiative offered an exceptional combination of expertise and experimental resources.

Innovative Technologies

Understanding biological systems is critical to the prosperity and possibly survival of humankind. Without them, we are at risk of disease, energy and food insecurity, pollution and climate change. Studying biological macromolecules – like proteins in atomic resolution – enables us to develop drugs, vaccines, herbicides and pesticides. And it helps us develop environmentally friendly industrial processes to make the chemicals we need.

The branch of science that deals with it is called structural biology.

Structural biologists decode the intricacies of protein structures with high-brilliance synchrotron radiation using a technique called X-ray crystallography or cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). These structures form the basis for the development of new drugs or vaccines against diseases. In particular, the recently developed, Nobel Prize winning technique of cryo-EM was essential to the development of the COVID-19 vaccines.

However, Africa remains largely a spectator in the race to develop these innovative technologies, even though START shows how to do it. The program has made tremendous impact in a short period of time with relatively modest investments. It has triggered a major change in structural biology research in Africa and shows what is needed and that it works. Existing research centers and networks were strengthened and new ones established. Young scientists gained self-confidence and skills through international cooperation, mentoring, the writing of suggestions and the processing of data.

The South African groups regularly collected data on synchrotrons and electron microscopes to expand our understanding of potential treatments. These included SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19), snakebite venom, HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, human papillomavirus, cardiovascular diseases and equine diseases. Work has also been done to produce industrial enzymes for the manufacture of medicines and basic chemicals.

For example, the structural biology laboratory at NICD focused on understanding the antibody response to communicable diseases such as HIV and COVID-19 to guide the search for effective vaccines. In addition, the NICD has developed structural biology projects to understand how antibodies recognize and stop worrying SARS-CoV-2 variants.

The START scholarship has contributed to:

  • Research work in leading international journals,
  • the development of a small but growing network of appropriately equipped laboratories across South Africa,
  • lively international cooperation and
  • numerous junior researchers trained in world-class structural biology, including synchrotron and cryo-EM techniques.

Unfortunately, the funding for START has ended.

What now?

The national government must build on the foundations of the START program. Only sustainable national policies will ensure that structural biology can achieve world-class science and advance relevant research across Africa.

Structural biology remains a niche science on the continent that is largely ignored by the infrastructure roadmaps. Ramaphosa’s vision of African vaccines needs to be supported by a national structural biology strategy. The aim would be to enlarge the community of scientists. This in turn would have a massive impact on vaccine and drug development as well as other regional challenges.

Teaching, training and infrastructure in protein crystallography and cryo-EM need to be expanded dramatically from a tiny base.

The structural biology community needs a modern cryo-EM center in South Africa. This would require significant investments that go beyond the capabilities of critically stressed universities.

Support from the international community is crucial.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of having both national and international approaches to research and development with access to the right kind of world-class equipment, training and expertise.

In Africa, vaccines against diseases occurring in Africa need to be developed. This makes good financial sense and focuses on helping Africa solve Africa’s problems. The World Bank estimates that the slow roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines could cost the continent $ 14 billion a month. Even that pales in comparison to the long-term costs of malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, and other poverty-related diseases.

Steps required include:

  • Local infrastructure and capacity. The infrastructure created by the START program must be expanded to include national reference laboratories, financed on a sustainable basis, well equipped and staffed with experts.
  • Preservation of capacity. Young scientists trained in South Africa must be retained in order to avoid the loss of knowledge and expertise. The need to offer all young researchers opportunities to develop their careers is obvious. But that doesn’t work without growth. It is therefore urgently necessary to implement measures that stimulate the research environment in structural biology and create new positions. This is key to ensuring that diversity, fresh ideas and new approaches relevant to Africa are brought to the local and international scientific community.
  • Access to international infrastructure. Synchrotrons, neutron sources and cryo-EM facilities around the world are open to African researchers. The challenge is to produce top notch research and competitive proposals to gain access. Funding for this must come from the South African Ministry of Finance. This should be reinforced by membership in international organizations.

START has built the skills and enthusiasm of South African life scientists. They recognized the utility of a structural approach to drug development for African diseases. The program has opened doors to international collaboration and technology that Africa cannot afford. Young researchers have embarked on a career in structural biology, hoping to apply their skills in the field. Local research on vaccines and drugs has started.

Ramaphosa’s desire to develop vaccines in South Africa could be realized by building on the foundation. But only if substantial and sustainable investments are made in personnel and infrastructure.

Diamond Light Source’s Rebekka Stredwick also contributed to this article. She was responsible for creating content for the START website.The conversation

Bryan Trevor Sewell, Senior Scholar (Former Director of the Electron Microscope Unit and Professor in the Department of Integrative Biomedical Sciences), University of Cape Town; Jeremy David Woodward, Chief Scientific Officer, University of Cape Town; Lauren B. Arendse, FLAIR Fellow, Center for Drug Discovery and Development (H3D), University of Cape Town; Thandeka Moyo-Gwete, Senior Medical Officer, National Institute for Communicable Diseases, and Wolf-Dieter Schubert, Professor of Biochemistry, University of Pretoria

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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