At a time when the world is battling COVID-19, homegrown efforts in the continent as well as initiatives being meted out are key to containing the virus. Like a Phoenix emerging from the ashes, Africa may perhaps surely be rising. We have heard this now over used phrase probably more times than one can recall. This narrative has been on-going for the better part of two decades now. To this, the Italians would say è sempre la solita zuppa, which in ordinary English parlance would be translated to mean, same old, same old.
However, even if a number of the glass being half-empty fellows would deny this, there is no doubt that researchers and healthcare professionals in the continent have well and truly taken steps to hush any such doubting Thomases. For anyone tittering on the verge of despair, a number of ground breaking innovations and breakthroughs have given the country a glimmer of hope during these testing times. The Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) marked its 40th Anniversary celebrations in February 2020. The institute has over the years been the leading light in matters research in the continent. Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) announced that it has started manufacturing COVID-19 rapid test kits to ease the testing burden at the State’s facilities. This will in essence assist in overcoming the bottleneck caused by the lack of enough mass testing kits. Once that is done, Kenya will be able to get results for at least 35,000 samples in 24 to 48 hours up from the around 600 to 700 tests being run per day. Vide a press conference on 20th April 2020, the Cabinet Secretary for Health; through the Pharmacy and Poisons Board is now accelerating regulatory decisions regarding COVID- 19 tests kits. The Cabinet Secretary outlined that the Board is implementing stringent expedited accreditation mechanism which shall ensure the process is done within 48 hours. Using this approach, the Board will increase the capacity for testing will be expanded to cover at least one laboratory in each county. This is expected to be operationalised within the next two weeks, according to the Cabinet Secretary. Apart from the Nairobi testing centres, other Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) centres in Busia, Kisumu and Kilifi are also operational. On 20th April 2020, the Cabinet Secretary further announced that there would be testing laboraties in each county, up from the current 10.
According to Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), as well as global information analytics giant Scimago Lab, Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) is ranked the top health research institution in Africa in terms of health research output, according to the authoritative global information analytics giant, Scimago Lab; and the Institute out-performed its contemporaries, the Medical Research Council (MRC) of South Africa, University College Hospital of Ibadan, Nigeria and the National Medical Research Institute (NIMRI) of Tanzania as per the 2019 rankings by Scimago Lab carried out in conjunction with Elsevier, technologically-based company offering innovative solutions to improve the Scientific Visibility and Online Reputation.
In Mombasa County, which is second to Nairobi in the number of confirmed cases; the county has through the efforts of all the relevant stakeholders and the County Government – the Governor Ali Hassan Joho has made commendable steps to contain the virus. Currently there is Sh200 million that has been allocated, being Emergency Household Relief and Nutrition Support Project as part of the Mombasa Economic Stimulus Programme that will ensure residents are adequately taken care of during this period.
Additionally, the county has been able to collect relief food worth over Sh16 million from several businesses, with donations ranging from food items, to sanitisers and other products. Before that, the county unveiled over 18 ventilators donated by the leader of Dubai, Sheikh Ahmed Mohammed Al-Falas at a time when the country was in dire need of ventilators.
Furthermore, 16 students at Kenyatta University (KU) from the school of Biomedical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Pharmacy, Medicine, and Nursing have also proceeded to assemble prototype ventilators. The said students outlined that they could manufacture 50 ventilators in a week. At Mount Kenya University’s College of Research and Graduate studies; they have invited both students and staff with technologies and innovations that could help in treating, testing, monitoring or other aspects of the Covid-19 outbreak to share the efforts for support. Possible themes include; personal protective equipment, contact tracing, medical devices and commodities, medical supply chain strengthening, environment, energy and food security, business and economy. This was pursuant to the University producing alcohol- based hand sanitizers to ease accessibility by the university students, staff and general public. Mount Kenya University has donated hand sanitisers to the government for use in the government isolation centers and the neighbouring police stations such as Makongeni and communities around the area.
The fact that tertiary institutions and local industries have stepped up to the plate at this critical time is an indicator that there is local capacity for sustainable manufacturing in Kenya. There needs to be more political goodwill and government support, to ensure that such industries can further emerge; even after the passing of this pandemic.
Apart from this, Kitui, through Governor Charity Ngilu, and upon the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus, the Kitui Textile Factory making face masks and other preventive gears as the government steps up measures to fight the rising number of infections. On 15th April 2020, Kakamega County acquired 42,000 face masks from Kitui County Textile Centre. Makueni County procured 20,000 face masks, from the garment factory as well. The factory has been making thousands of masks pursuant to approval by the Kenya Bureau of Standards.
The East African Community (EAC) has not been left behind either. The East African Community (EAC) Secretariat carried out an intensive training programme for laboratory experts to detect and diagnose the new novel corona virus COVID-19 in the East African Community region.
The training was conducted under the East African Community (EAC) Network of Public Health Reference Laboratories for Communicable Diseases (Mobile Labs Programme) in collaboration with the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine (BNITM). The programme is part of the financial support provided to the EAC Region by the German Development Bank (KfW) on behalf of Federal Republic of Germany. The training aimed at building capacity in the region to detect COVID-19. The EAC Secretariat further acquired diagnostic kits for the novel corona virus that will be distributed among the East African Community (EAC) Partner States soon after the training as part of the regional preparedness plan against COVID-19.
Additionally, the East African Community (EAC) under the Mobile Laboratory Project has also deployed nine (9) mobile laboratories and Coronavirus test kits to all East African Community (EAC) Partner States in a bid to detect and respond to highly infectious diseases such as COVID-19 and Ebola. The East African Community (EAC) Secretary General, Amb Liberat Mfumukeko said that each Partner State would receive a four wheel drive vehicle fitted with laboratory and ICT equipment, as well as all the necessary consumables for a fully functional laboratory with the capacity to conduct tests for Ebola and the Coronavirus in addition to other pathogens. A total of 9 Mobile Laboratories are being deployed to the Partner States as follows: Republic of Burundi -1, Republic of Rwanda -1, Republic of South Sudan -1, Republic of Kenya – 2, Republic of Uganda – 2 and United Republic of Tanzania – 2.
In addition to the Mobile Laboratories, the East African Community (EAC) Secretariat has also provided COVID-19 tests kits, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) including gloves, gown, mask goggles, and shoe protectors, and other consumables to the Partner States. The Mobile Laboratories have also been equipped with modern equipment and could diagnose most pathogens in addition to providing safe, accurate and timely patient results for COVID-19, Ebola and other disease-causing pathogens. The EAC Secretariat has trained a total of 18 Laboratory Experts from the Partner States who are skilled trainers and certified proficient operators/ users on the operation of the Mobile Laboratories.
Across the continent, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and other African countries have dealt with multiple health crisis involving infectious viruses. As such, the continent must come together and these countries especially, to draw blueprints for other African countries during this period.
The World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Africa on 1st April 2020 in Brazaville hosted its first virtual ‘hackathon’ bringing together 100 leading innovators from across sub-Saharan Africa in a bid to pioneer creative local solutions to the Covid-19 pandemic and address critical gaps in the regional response. As Covid-19 spreads rapidly across Africa, raising concerns about the strain on already fragile health systems, it has become clear that solutions in the response require action beyond the health sector, Innovation can play a critical role in that regard. It should be part of our DNA going forward.
Hackathon participants were split into eight focus groups, each of which was tasked with developing an innovative and scalable concept aligned with one of the eight pillars of WHO’s current COVID-19response strategy: coordination; surveillance; risk communication and community engagement; points of entry; laboratory; infection prevention and control; case management and continuity of essential health services; and operational and logistics support. Over the course of the three-day event, groups worked on their respective projects via Zoom and WhatsApp, where they also received regular guidance and mentorship from WHO’s innovation team at WHO Africa regional headquarters in Brazzaville.
Proposals ranged from mobile-driven self-diagnosis, screening and mapping tools to alternative low-cost methods for producing personal protective equipment (PPE). The three highest ranking groups will now receive seed funding and further WHO support to help develop and implement their solutions. Understanding how the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to evolve in Africa is still a work in progress, and the response is still being adapted to the African context. Solidarity and the sharing of ideas across the region will be an important part of that process. African countries can set an example in terms of innovation and solutions that are tailored to limited resource settings.
After the first case of COVID-19 was announced in Benin on the 16th March, 2020, within four days, the West African nation had set up a range of digital platforms to help combat both the spread of the disease.
Significantly, and as countries continue to search for the very much elusive vaccine, Amadou Sall, director of the Pasteur Institute in Dakar, Senegal began validation trials on a COVID-19 diagnostic test that can be done at home and produce results in as little as 10 minutes – all for approximately $1. The same team in Dakar had earlier worked on vaccines for yellow fever and dengue, developed the prototype for the diagnostic test in partnership with Mologic, a British biotech company. More than 200 companies are working to develop similarly speedy tests, according to the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics in Geneva. However, there still is no breakthrough still none of the companies have met the international standard of shelf life and accuracy. The search continues.
The actions by the Government of Kenya thus far include suspending of travel/movement in and out of various counties including Nairobi, Mombasa, Kwale, Kilifi and Mandera. Learning centers, bars and social clubs have also been closed. The Government has also made it mandatory for sanitation to be carried out for all Public Service Vehicles and bus stations as well as observation of social distancing in these vehicles.
More importantly, the National Assembly on 22nd April 2020 also amended various tax related statutes to cushion Kenyans and the economy; including the Income Tax Act which has provided for 100% tax relief for persons earning below Kshs. 24,000/= . The House further made an amendment to exempt Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) for health workers; which will also lower the cost of face masks for Kenyans.
Across the world, Kenya needs to inculcate into its homegrown solutions; practices from across the continent in order to adequately combat the virus; in addition to the measures already being undertaken.