COVID-19 reminds us of the importance of global health R&I cooperation: AU-EU leadership could now take it to the next level
Tom Kariuki and Cécile Vernant
Weeks after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and Europe its new epicentre, European and African leaders issued a global emergency call to support Africa’s response to COVID-19. This included the proposal of an unprecedented stimulus package of $100 billion, as well as mobilising immediate support to strengthen Africa’s health systems. Ironically, only a few days before that announcement, the European Commission had proposed a new comprehensive strategy with Africa to identify the future cooperation priorities for both continents in which health was little more than a footnote. This deprioritisation of health was consistent with the mandate given by African and European Union (AU-EU) leaders in the 2017 AU-EU summit declaration. As happened with the Ebola crisis, an epidemic outbreak has brought global health back to the top of the AU-EU agenda, with research and innovation (R&I) once again playing a critical role in expanding our understanding of this disease and ensuring we have the right tools to tackle it. On June 2020, EU Foreign Affairs Ministers declared the value of knowledge-sharing and cooperation on global health for Africa and the EU, and stressed the need to step up cooperation on R&I on endemic infectious diseases.
In order to be better prepared for the next outbreak, we must recognise the interdependence of our continents on global health and use our capacities and talents to the fullest. R&I must play a central role in our common response to global health challenges, helping us to develop new and improved health technologies, expanding our understanding of infectious diseases and their modes of transmission, increasing health literacy, creating opportunities for our youth and more quality jobs for the scientific communities, and promoting cooperation within and between our continents. AU-EU Research Ministers already took an essential step in that direction with their first-ever meeting on July 16 this year to discuss equitable access of COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines, as well as ways to continue with the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP2), the flagship initiative for infectious disease R&I between European and sub-Saharan countries. Recent initiatives such as an AU-EU partnership to strengthen pandemic preparedness also go in the right direction.
In 2021, AU-EU leaders will have the opportunity to consolidate this conversation towards a more comprehensive cooperation on global health R&I between our continents. For that, two basic measures must be taken. First, we need a proposal for a much-needed AU-EU R&I roadmap on global health that looks proactively at the risks and opportunities in this field, expands the cooperation beyond the scope of the EDCTP2 and brings more cohesion, coherence and effectiveness to our cooperation in this area. Since the formalisation of the Joint Africa-EU Partnership in 2007, there have been R&I roadmaps on food security and nutrition, renewable energies and environment, and currently on innovation, but never on global health. EDCTP is a highly successful partnership whose impact can be widened by scaling up existing schemes for developing R&I capacities such as African Union Research Grants, intensifying collaboration in earlier and later stages of research, and implementing blueprints where Africa-led research seeks to ensure more Africans lead healthier lives, such as the Health Research and Innovation Strategy for Africa (HRISA): 2018-2030.
Second, as a new EU-Africa strategy is in the making and EU development instruments finalised, EU-AU should include as part of their continental cooperation, activities contributing to a more enabling environment for global health R&I. This should also include stepping up investments in strengthening and harmonising Africa’s research and regulatory systems, to ensure the safety, quality and efficacy of medicines in Africa. The European Research Area and the European Medicines Agency are useful benchmarks for Africa’s ongoing plans in these fields, and AU-EU cooperation could help to share good practices and lessons learned. Building on and expanding African-led initiatives such as the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) and AESA’s Clinical Trials Community (CTC) is also critical. AAESA is an initiative of the African Academy of Sciences, African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD) and global partners, launched in 2015. It has created more than 15 programmes, some of which - including the major programmes DELTAS Africa and Grand Challenges Africa - are conducting R&I in priority areas for Africa-EU global health cooperation such as poverty-related and neglected infectious diseases or One Health. AESA’s CTC is a versatile, comprehensive, and accessible platform providing quick and real-time visibility of African clinical trials sites, capacity, and capability and showcases the regulatory and ethical requirements, approval processes, timelines, and guidelines for conducting trials in the different countries across the continent to promote confidence on safety. Additionally building partnerships can help strengthen the collaboration such as the case with the newly launched African Research Initiative for Scientific Excellence (ARISE) Pilot Programme to enable early career African scientists in delivering cutting-edge research across Africa to be implemented by the African Academy of Sciences with the strategic direction of the European Union and the African Union.
AU-EU global health R&I cooperation is a story of success but also of unfulfilled expectations and untapped potential. For decades already, HIV & AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases have been a leading cause of mortality and morbidity in Africa, perpetuating poverty-cycles, aggravating inequalities and depriving millions of a fair chance. Despite that, still today, huge gaps persist in the availability and efficacy of treatments or vaccines against these diseases and with every epidemic outbreak, global health R&I capacities and resources are spread thin, stalling or even unravelling scientific progress. African and European leaders need to prepare the ground for a more robust conversation on global health R&I that goes beyond COVID-19, recognises the vast potential of the field and put forward a plan to harness it, in order to address pressing global health challenges and future threats. Let us not wait for the next outbreak, when again it will be too little, too late.
Tom Kariuki is the Director for the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA)
Cécile Vernant is the Head of the EU Office of Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevoelkerung (DSW)