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Prof Happi Proposes Covid-19 Vaccine Made in Africa For Africa

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Professor Christian Tientcha Happi is a Professor of Molecular Biology and Genomics in the Department of Biological Sciences, and the Director African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID), Redeemer’s University.

He holds a BSc in Biochemistry, MSc and PhD in Molecular Parasitology from the University of Ibadan in 1993, 1995 and 2000 respectively.

He did his post-doctoral research in Molecular Biology and Genomics at Harvard University, School of Public Health, Boston, MA, USA (2000-2003, ).

He is currently the Director, Directorate of Research Innovations and Partnerships (DRIPs), Redeemer’s University.

He has carried out research focus on Human Genomics, Molecular Biology and Genomics of Infectious Diseases, especially Malaria, Viral Haemorrhagic Fevers (Lassa fever, Ebola Virus Disease, and HIV among others.

His laboratory confirmed the first case of Ebola Virus Disease in Nigeria in the 2014 Ebola outbreak, and work with Nigerian Health Officials for the successful containment of the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria.

In this interview, he talked about how they developed the rapid diagnostic test kit for covid, which can give result within 10 minutes to 15 minutes.

He also talked about the need to encourage Nigerians to be vaccinated because the COVID-19 vaccine is efficacious and that it has been demonstrated all over the world that people that take the vaccine, protect themselves against the virus infection.

Here is an excerpt from the interview.

Current Research Interest

My research focus is on Human Genomics, Molecular Biology and Genomics of Infectious Diseases, especially Malaria, Viral Haemorrhagic Fevers (Lassa fever, Ebola Virus Disease, and others), and HIV.

My current research activities consist of using innovative approaches that combine patient care, fieldwork, laboratory, molecular biology and genomics methods for discoveries that have shifted the paradigm in clinical research and applications in parasites and viral diagnosis, parasites biology and genomics, Pharmacogenomics, and human genomics.

Also, I am passionate about building research capacity and human resource through training and mentoring activities.

Through my research, we have been able to identify molecular markers of antimalarial drug resistance in Plasmodium falciparum, the agent of malaria.

We recently discovered new viruses (EKV-1 and EKV-2 and developed new rapid diagnoses for Ebola virus disease (EVD), and Lassa fever virus.

My laboratory confirmed the first case of Ebola Virus Disease in Nigeria in the 2014 Ebola outbreak, and work with Nigerian Health Officials for the successful containment of the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria.

Research work in my laboratory contributed significantly to the establishment of the global reference for human genetic variation.

Our research work has also resulted in the identification of new genes associated with human resistance to infection to the Lassa fever virus.

I have been working in the space of infectious diseases in the past 22 years, across west Africa Lassa fever, ebola, monkeypox, yellow fever and covid.

The genomic works that I have been doing over the past 12 years hemorrhagic fever is mainly to understand the nature of the virus and leverage those information and translate it to tools like a point of care diagnostic, also things like a vaccine.

We are also very much involved in capacity building, so we set up one of the best genomic platforms where we are training what we call a critical mass of young Africans so Africa Centre of Excellence for Genomic infectious diseases that I am the founder and director, is to create what we call academic and research environment that transcend national boundaries, where young Africans can actually use that platform to express their God-given talent and then use such platform to do genomics for public health, development of the continent so in so doing, we are basically focusing on training what we refer to as critical mass African scientists that can annex the knowledge and skill, tools of genomics to address problem of infectious disease and specifically control and elimination, eradication of infectious disease.

In addition to that, we are building a new genomic curriculum that applies to infectious disease. Also, we are engaging the public health community in education.

That is what we have been doing in the past decade; overall our goal is basically to build the next generation of what is called African pathogen hunters, doing this in Africa, with Africa in collaboration with friends, colleague and partners outside so that we can stop playing what I call orphans instead of defence.

Because what we see today, is that anytime there is an outbreak or epidemic of diseases somewhere the world start battling, but I think now we need to start thinking of how we can use the skill and knowledge that we have to start uncovering those viruses and develop countermeasures before they come to us.

That is the countermeasure we are taking now and we are going to be leveraging on platform and skill, the talent we are grooming.

Fast track test kit for covid-19?

We can develop one of the fastest rapid diagnostic test kits for covid-19 in the world, before that we did something five days or within a week after the first case of covid was announced in Nigeria, we can come up with e-sub-screening test tools in Nigeria and link that up with other local government and Yaba Hospital.

Then we went on to develop the rapid diagnostic test kit for covid, how did we do that?

We did that because we were the lab that reconfirmed the very first case in Lagos that was tested by PCR, NCDC sent the sample to us and we can confirm it.

We did that speedily. We set up the record that nobody is ever able to beat in the world, from sample collection to releasing data on the international genomic platform call G-SET, it took us 72 hours.

This process usually takes weeks but we did it in 72 hours. And it is base on that particular sequence and other sequences that follow that we went on to develop diagnose test kit.

This test kit is faster and cheaper, in which within 10 minutes to 15 minutes you will have the result.

You don’t need to collect a blood sample, just saliva and you don’t need a specialized laboratory.

It is the test that is mostly adopted for Africa because you don’t need a highly specialized lab. It is just like a pregnancy test, another thing is that it targets the virus RNA and it is very precise and specific.

Research funding in Africa?

I don’t think African countries see any value in research, African leaders promised that they are going to dedicate 2 per cent of their GDP to support research but they are not doing it only a few countries like Rwanda are dedicating about 0.5% towards research.

So that is a problem, you cannot make progress, as a nation if you do not fund education and research and that is the reason Africa is over-dependent on other countries for everything.

It’s evident even during this covid-19 when we over-dependent on international communities for everything from PPE, to Vaccine, we are depending on international communities.

Africa’s independence will only come when they invest in research and take responsibility for their problem and when they start to look inward in finding a solution to their problems.

It is obvious that we are at the mercy of different countries we do not produce anything, we are consumers, not producers, which puts us in a weak and vulnerable position.

That is the fact we can’t shy away from. The truth of the matter is, as long as Africa does not invest in research and develop her capacity and addresses her problems, we will continue to be weak and exploited and at the back of the queue.

Research and innovation in addressing our developmental challenges in Africa?

The only way to do that is investment through the private sector and government establishment.

Funding research is not only the responsibility of the government, but the private sector also need to be involved but unfortunately in Africa, private sector investment is nothing on research.

What you see in Africa people that can invest in research refuse to do so, what they do is to go to Harvard or Cambridge to donate, to an institution where their money will not make any impact.

They ignore where they should put their money and go elsewhere because they have an inferiority complex.

If there is any lesson to learn I think they would have seen through this pandemic that it is better to invest in your country than to go elsewhere because during the pandemic everybody was on lockdown and they couldn’t fly around with a private jet.

Investment in research in Africa academic will be very helpful because Africa needs to develop. Secondly, when you look at Africa, one of the reasons why Africa is stagnant is simply because there is no brain circulation in Africa. knowledge does not circulate in Africa.

The reason why I’m saying this is because it’s a shame in Africa that we can’t have Africa research circulating moving from one country to another sharing knowledge. It is easier for African to go abroad to share knowledge than to share with African counterpart.

What are your thoughts about the Covid-19 vaccine?

Firstly, the COVID-19 vaccine is efficacious. And it has been demonstrated all over the world that people that take the vaccine, protect themselves against the virus infection.

The AstraZeneca vaccine that is in Nigeria, we should encourage people to take it. I also understand the fears of the people because this vaccine is foreign so people are afraid.

If anything to go by and the Africa government are listening, is basically that people in Africa are telling them that they don’t have confidence in the vaccine that is coming from outside Africa. And the message is that fund vaccine that will emanate from Africa.

I can tell you that Africans will be more comfortable if they hear that the vaccine emanated from Africa. I hope our government will listen to the masses.

The people are telling our leaders that they are tired of using imported things. Imported vaccines among other things am not against the fact that they are good but the message is that we will trust vaccine made in Africa by our researchers more than what is coming from outside.

That is why you are seeing vaccine resistance and apathy. People want to see what is made by their people so that they will be very comfortable using it.

Misconception about COVID-19?

Covid-19 is real, people should take necessary precautions if we did not respect the safety rules it will be difficult to get rid of this disease even if the vaccine is given out.

Even with the availability of the vaccine, people should continue to protect themselves.

Adapted from Vanguard

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Science

US Hates Vaccine Passports, Europe Loves Them

Back in 1992, Yiannis Klouvas converted an old cinema into the Blue Lagoon restaurant, which garnered a strong reputation for live music. There is no music now.

The business, like so many others on the Greek island of Rhodes, is struggling due to the pandemic’s restrictions on travel.

“If we see a tourist on the street these days,” he says, “we take a photo to remember them.”

Mr. Klouvas is now banking on the EU Digital COVID Certificate, also known as the “green passport,” to save the summer.

Starting July 1, all EU member states will accept the certificates as proof of COVID-19 vaccination, a recent negative test, or recovery from the disease.

The plan got a resounding yes at the European Parliament on June 9. All EU member states, Liechtenstein, and Norway will implement the passport.

But across the Atlantic, the idea faces strong head winds, whether for travel or domestic use. The Biden administration has ruled out introducing vaccination passports, and some states even ban them.

Fox News talk show host Tucker Carlson likened the use of them to segregation. “Medical Jim Crow has come to America,” he said.

Prioritizing freedom and fears of government overreach underpin the rejection of vaccine certificates in the U.S., while European societies have grappled more with issues of privacy and fairness.

And so as Western countries savor a return to the old, this phase of post-pandemic mobility is being shaped by cultural attitudes – like Europeans’ tendency to make the most of having entirely different cultures within a few hours’ drive – and the initial responses to the pandemic.

“Alabama never closed the border to Mississippi in the way Finland closed the border to Sweden,” points out Anders Herlitz, a researcher at Sweden’s Institute for Futures Studies.

“Here in the EU, the vaccine passports are seen as a necessary evil to get rid of other, much more extensive, limitations to people’s freedom, whereas in the U.S., they would not help getting rid of other limitations, but only cause new limitations.”

Jen Kates, director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington, says previous pandemic plans didn’t account for cultural variations and responses.

“One thing we know from how COVID has played out globally is that culture matters,” she says. “Politics, culture, all the differences that we know that structure people’s lives have to be taken into account, both for getting back to normal and for preparing for the next pandemic.”

Europe’s green passport

Nine European countries, including Greece and Germany, are already using the EU COVID-19 passport. When the Greek government unveiled the passport, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis trumpeted the opening of a “fast lane” to facilitate travel.

Everyone realises two years without tourists would be an economic disaster for the Mediterranean nation.

“Greece is very strongly pro-vaccine passport, especially as far as foreigners are concerned,” says Paris Kyriacopolous, chairman of Motodynamics and Lion Rental, which operates Sixt Rent a Car in Greece.

Ipsos polling data suggests the dominant attitude toward COVID-19 vaccine passports across Europe is equally positive.

When it comes to using them domestically, citizens are more concerned by questions of fairness than by privacy issues, and pockets of society are ambivalent about or opposed to vaccines. But when it comes to travel, the view is clearly pro.

Even Germany, which had more rigorous ethical debates on the issues and boasts stringent data privacy laws, got behind the idea of digital health certificates.

More than 60% of Germans now support implementing them, according to a recent YouGov poll, even though less than half the population has had a first jab.

Malcolm Jorgensen, an academic who is providing administrative assistance at one of Berlin’s six vaccination centres, is fully vaccinated as of this week.

His vaccination card has allowed him to shop at markets and visit the gym without flashing a coronavirus test result. He says the move from a paper card to a digital passport isn’t much of a leap.

“There’s already informal digitization,” says Dr. Jorgensen. “At the gym I can just show a photograph of my vaccination booklet, rather than the booklet itself. Digitization is inevitable.”

In Germany, debates over the passports have had less to do with privacy concerns than with equity of access for people who choose not to or cannot be vaccinated. Analysts note that medical insurance companies already have individuals’ health details.

“It’s an ethical question,” says Olga Stepanova, a data protection attorney with WINHELLER Law. “Each government needs to decide what kinds of access limitations may be imposed to protect others, while not limiting freedoms of non-vaccinated people in an inappropriate way.”

Concern about privacy

The freedom debate has been particularly fierce in the U.S. Much like other issues throughout the pandemic, the vaccine certificate has become deeply polarizing.

The divisions fall along partisan lines – just as they did with stay-at-home orders and mask mandates – and so different states have moved toward normalcy in distinct ways.

New York was the first to introduce its Excelsior Pass, which allows residents to prove their vaccination status to gain access to certain social venues. But several states, including Florida and Texas, ban such passes outright.

The state of Michigan has been one of the most closely watched during the last year, ever since former President Donald Trump notoriously tweeted “Liberate Michigan” last spring in regard to tough anti-lockdown measures implemented by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

This spring, as the state coped with one of the worst spikes of COVID-19, a bitter debate over vaccine passports broke out.

This month the Michigan House approved legislation to ban so-called vaccine passports in the state – even though the governor has repeatedly said she has no intention of introducing them.

“The threat of government controlling one’s daily life through identification of whether one is immunised or not is frightening,” said Rep. Sue Allor, who proposed the bill.

Like the rest of the country, the state is divided. The University of Michigan has mandated that students living in dormitories must prove vaccination.

Since Michigan is a border state, some Democrats have pushed for passes as a way to travel more easily to Canada and avoid quarantines.

Dave Boucher, a government and politics reporter with the Detroit Free Press, says opposition centers around freedom of choice. It’s about “the government ‘telling me what I can and can’t do,’” he says.

“And there’s always the slippery slope argument where if the government is endorsing vaccine passports now, then they’re going to get vital information about you and track that information and use it in unknown, nefarious ways.”

Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, says the vast majority of his members are committed to a safe reopening and return to normal, but don’t see passports as a way to do it.

“There is no groundswell of support that would be in favor of mandatory vaccines and vaccine passports,” he says.

“If there is one thing businesses have learned over the past year in Michigan, other than how to survive, it is how to operate their business safely to protect employees and customers.”

In general, Americans – much like Europeans – are more accepting of passports to travel than they are for domestic use, according to polls. Some analysts believe they are an inevitable part of post-pandemic mobility.

“Digital health certificates are already available in the EU, and my guess is that they will be widely used, even without being adopted by the U.S.,” says Chris Dye, a professor of epidemiology at Oxford University in Britain.

As other parts of the world move forward with passes, the U.S. might find itself playing catch-up. “It’ll be really interesting to look ahead three to six months and see as other parts of the world are going forward and using these kinds of mechanisms, if there will be a change,” says Dr. Kates.

First Published in Christian Science Monitor

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CORONA VIRUS

Rwanda Uses Trained Dogs To Detect Covid-19 Patients

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Passengers arriving at Kigali International Airport in Rwanda can now be tested for COVID-19 without inserting swabs into their nose or throat to collect lab samples and wait for minutes to receive results.

Instead, the airport is using trained sniffer dogs to detect Covid-19 by smelling sweat samples taken from passengers with just cotton patches. The collected samples are then taken to the sniffing cabin set up in a separate area.

With an accuracy close to that of a PCR test in about one minute, a dog quickly detects which of the samples in the cabins has COVID-19.

This initiative was launched on Friday June 4, at Kigali International Airport as a three-month pilot with five dogs acquired from Police Dogs Centre Holland B.V, which supplies working dogs and related services to police, customs and security companies all over the world.

Rwanda says sniffer dogs will reduce the time and cost of testing at the Kigali International Airport. The Rwanda Biomedical Center says it has plan to scale up the use of sniffer dogs at mass gatherings based on the outcomes of this pilot phase, a partnership between Rwanda and Germany.

Germany supplied the Detection Dog Training System from Kynoscience, a German firm that also trained the dog handlers from the Canine Brigade of the Rwanda National Police.

It is believed that dogs can distinguish between more than a million different smells, they can detect even the finest traces of scent, and just a few molecules are enough for them to smell a substance.

In July 2020, researchers from Germany trained army sniffer dogs to distinguish between samples of fluids from patients infected with SARS-CoV-2 and healthy donors.

In this particular study, the researchers under the leadership of Dr. Esther Schalke, a vet at Germany’s armed forces school for service dogs and Prof. Holger Volk, Department Chair for Small Animal Diseases of Hanover’s University of Veterinary Medicine trained eight Bundeswehr (German Army) detection dogs over the period of a week to detect the saliva and secretions from the lungs and windpipe of patients who had been infected with SARS-CoV-2.

The 1st Secretary of the Germany Embassy in Rwanda, Renate Charlotte Lehner, said that Rwanda reach out to Germany to try the dogs in the effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus and create a solid foundation for future studies to investigate what the dogs smell and whether they can also be used to differentiate between different times of illness or clinical phenotypes.

The dog expert, Hans Ebbers, who is also CEO of Kynoscience, says there is no special breed but certain dogs are more talented.

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Health

AstraZeneca, COVAX Team Up to Get More Vaccines to Africa

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AstraZeneca a British-Swedish multinational pharmaceutical and biotechnology company has said it plans to get more covid-19 vaccines on the African continent as the fight against the pandemic intensifies.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently said Africa is in urgent need of 20 million doses to be able to administer the second jab to people that were inoculated.

Most African countries have been accessing vaccines against corona virus through COVAX a worldwide initiative aimed at equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines directed by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and the World Health Organization.

However, the vaccines reaching the continent are insufficient- this is the reason AstraZeneca is teaming up with COVAX to find a quick solution.

“We agree completely with our partners at WHO that the supply of Covid-19 vaccines to African nations has reached a critical point,” says Barbara Nel, Africa region Country President, AstraZeneca.

She noted that the question for everyone in the vaccine alliance now is how we work together to try to make up the shortfall and get more doses to Africa.

AstraZeneca vaccines account for 97% of COVAX supply to date, with more than 71 million doses delivered to 125 participating countries, including more than 38 African countries.

Globally, more than 400 Million of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines have been supplied to date.

Rwanda on May 27th received an extra 247,000 doses of the AstraZeneca. ” This consignment to Rwanda demonstrates the value of governments, industry and others working together to address our continent’s urgent needs,” Barbara Nel told Taarifa.

She added that all partners in the vaccine alliance are working round the clock to ensure that as many COVID-19 vaccines can get to African nations as soon as possible.   

“This is wonderful news for the people of Rwanda. On behalf of AstraZeneca, I would like to thank President Paul Kagame, President Emmanuel Macron of France and our partners at the COVAX coalition, the World Health Organization, Gavi, CEPI and UNICEF for making this possible.

According to Barbara Nel, extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures.

AstraZeneca has risen to the challenge of creating a not-for-profit vaccine that is widely available around the world and we are proud that our COVID-19 vaccine accounts for 96% of all supplies to COVAX.

To make wide vaccine access a reality, “we have established 20 supply lines over the last year, spread across the globe and have shared the IP and know-how with dozens of partners, one of which is SII, the largest vaccine manufacturer globally and the main supplier to Africa,” Barbara Nel said.

She added that their model is similar to what an open IP model could look like. “We will continue working in partnership with other manufacturers, governments and public health experts in all parts of the world in order to provide broad and equitable access to vaccines around the world.”

Last week, while on a state visit to Rwanda, French President Emmanuel Macron donated 247,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccines to Rwanda.

“I want to thank you for coming along with much needed vaccines. We needed them very badly…that’s what friends are there for,” President Paul Kagame said during a joint press briefing.

Rwanda needs at least 13 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine to inoculate its target 60 percent of the population, about 7.5 million people, by June 2022.

So far, only 4% have received the first dose of the vaccine. Currently, delivery of the second doses of AstraZeneca vaccines to Kigali is experiencing delays after India suspended vaccine exports due to an upsurge in domestic Covid-19 cases.

Rwanda was to receive Covid-19 vaccines in early April from the Serum Institute of India via the Covax Facility. In March, Rwanda vaccinated 350,465 people, with the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines.

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