The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed gaps in the healthcare system in Africa and brought many lessons to the fore, but the swift response and containment of cases in almost all African countries are no mean achievement.
Thankfully, the pandemic did not only put pressure on Africa’s healthcare system or kill many Africans as predicted by some scientists in the Western world, but it surely has sparked some fire in science, healthcare and research into finding cures for the virus and other diseases in the last two years.
To authorities in the health sector, the prolonged uncertain nature of the pandemic has presented local opportunities and challenges at the same time.
Health workers and experts say the pressure on the global health systems, has revitalized the practice of many scientists and researchers to cultivate deeper research and connections to find a cure or vaccine for COVID-19 and another infectious disease, especially in Africa.
A document on vaccine manufacturing in Africa, published in March 2021 by the UK Aid shows that COVID- 19 and other outbreaks have led to a sense of urgency and renewed public commitments, creating unprecedented alignment around African vaccine manufacturing.
Morocco and China National Biotec Group Company Limited (CNBG) in August 2020 signed two cooperation agreements on COVID-19 vaccine trials to allow Morocco to produce a vaccine and in November 2020 Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) signed a deal with the Moroccan pharmaceutical manufacturer Galenica to produce the Russian COVID-19 vaccine locally.
Similarly in 2021: Aspen Pharmacare started the production of Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines in South Africa. For the first time, with funding from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), Ghana and Rwanda are collaborating to build a whole production process for COVID-19 vaccines in Africa; the vaccines would be produced in Rwanda, and it would be filled and- finished in Ghana.
In Ghana, for instance, the COVID-19 pandemic served the pharmaceutical and medical products production industry to innovate in the production of hand sanitizers, nose mask, Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) and disinfectants to aid the observation of safety protocol and protection at the onset of the pandemic while the world battles to find a cure.
Despite the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy, the Food and Drugs Authority (FDA) for the first time in 2020, registered 349 different types of locally made medical devices like syringes, examination gloves and nose masks.
Records from the FDA show that within the period, the number of drugs and nutraceuticals: cosmetics and household chemicals, herbal products and food supplements, zinc and vitamins produced locally, increased from 2,717 in 2019 to 5,187 in 2020.
Mrs Delese A.A. Darko, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the FDA, told Ghana News Agency (GNA) that before the pandemic, the Authority had registered only 19 hand sanitizers in Ghana but in 2020, amidst the outbreak, there were over 1,200 registered sanitizers on the markets, all made locally.
Obviously, while the highest priority goals were treatment and prevention of COVID-19, scientific and technological knowledge and resources have never been greater leveraging globally to perform COVID-19 research at warp speed.
On January 5, 2020, just weeks after the first cases of illness were reported, the genetic sequence, which identified the pathogen as a novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, was released, providing information essential for identifying and developing treatments, vaccines, and diagnostics.
It would not be wrong to say that while Ghana counts the costs, COVID-19 also inspired domestic manufacturing capabilities, and deepened self-reliance.
President Nana Addo Dankwa Akuffo Addo, said in his 28th televised update to Ghanaians on measures taken against the spread of the COVID-19, that his quest to ensure that Ghana achieves self-sufficiency and boosts health security lead to the set up of a vaccine manufacturing institute to foresee the establishment of a National Vaccine Institute in Ghana.
“We shall not then, in the future, be at the mercy of foreign vaccine nationalism and geopolitics,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic made it possible for Ghana to commit USD 25 million to develop its domestic vaccine production capability and facilitate the capacity of domestic pharmaceutical companies to fill, finish and package mRNA COVID-19, malaria, tuberculosis, and other vaccines, as a first step towards vaccine production, by early 2024.
Professor Mikey Osei-Atweneboana, a Scientist at the Biomedical and Public Health Research Unit of the Center for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) told the Ghana News Agency that the COVID-19 pandemic led to the establishment of the CSIR COVID-19 research lab to facilitate testing, research into the virus and possibly find a cure to the disease.
He said the COVID-19 laboratory has a Pharmacology Department that presently assesses herbal medication, its formulation, and its life span to make it more efficient.
The Professor said the Unit was presently doing a repurposing of drugs to test the efficiency of some existing drugs to cure COVID-19 and other diseases.
“Since the outbreak of the virus, there has been a lot of scientific and technological knowledge and resources that were never available, lots of scientific resources and infrastructure have been developed because of COVID-19,” said.
Prof Osei-Atweneboana said due to COVI D-19, the CSIR received equipment, which they would not have, a strong base of research into the virus has been developed, the level of collaboration between external institutions, within and outside Ghana was deepened.
The Scientist stressed the need for the world to keep up the great level of collaboration and cooperation built in the development of the COVID-19 vaccine to find cures and medications for other diseases.
“Even in Ghana and across Africa, lots of immune boosters were produced locally, COVID-19 has taught the world lots of lessons and Ghana must take advantage of experience and translate them into finding cures for infectious diseases, which are threats to public health as well as finding more efficacious medications for Non-Communicable Disease and Neglected Tropical Diseases, ” he said.
Prof. Osei-Atweneboana says Africa must leverage on opportunities presented by the pandemic and venture into producing medications for diseases of much concern to Africans.
He said COVID-19 has revealed gaps in the national health systems and brought many lessons to the fore and called for a close collaboration between scientists and herbal practitioners to discover and find herbal medications for diseases affecting Africans.
Dr Kofi Bobi Barimah, the Executive Director of CPMR says the centre amidst the pandemic developed two medications Immune and Ampoforte as a cure to the virus, the medications are presently registered as herbal supplements for boosting immunity.
“Together with the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), we produced and administered Nidiema, a locally produced COVID-19 herbal medicine to COVID-19 patients to test its efficacy as part of the treatment plan for infected patients.”
The result of this trial he said is yet to be published.
Dr Barimah said the Ministry of Health had also presented 33 herbal products from The Ghana Federation of Traditional Medicine Practitioners Associations (GHAFTRAM) to be tested as a cure for COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic according to Dr Barimah has hastened and reposed the public’s confidence in herbal medicine in Ghana.
The COVID-19 pandemic has stressed the need for African countries to invest in the development of their own capacity to create the necessary instruments which are essential to guaranteeing the health of their population.