NIGERIA, like other African countries, wasn’t spared from the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. To overcome this challenge, countries have been advised to keep testing, treating and isolating to reduce infections.

Nigeria has been expanding its capacity to test. The country’s laboratories can carry out about 18,000 tests per million daily, but this can be improved. The country ought to be doing about 40,000 – 50,000 tests daily.

Nigeria successfully controlled Ebola and is applying some of the lessons learned. But COVID-19 presents new challenges as scientists are still trying to understand the novel virus.

This novelty highlights the importance of continuous investment in science, research and development. The African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases, Redeemer’s University, Ede, is one of the few research institutions in the country with the ability to carry out whole-genome sequencing. It’s, therefore, one of the few centres working on the frontline of the pandemic. It collaborates with the second main institution, the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control.

Rwanda is an example of a country that has invested in healthcare and provides an environment for innovation. For example, Rwanda’s Health Ministry announced the use of smart robots to administer temperature checks, monitor COVID-19 patients’ status and keep medical records.

The robots were created to speed up service and help protect the lives of health workers. Other innovations include drones to raise COVID-19 awareness, spraying kiosks, and step-and-wash handwashing facilities. Rwanda is currently celebrated as a success story, having recorded only 5017 cases and 34 deaths, as of 23 October.

To control this pandemic and prevent a future one, Nigeria needs to start investing heavily in scientific research. Nigeria was one of the 10 African heads of state and government that endorsed a target to allocate 1% of gross domestic product to research and development in 2002. But progress towards this target has been slow.

Scientific responses

On 1 March 2020, an Italian man was identified as the first case of COVID-19 in Nigeria by the National Center for Disease Control. Within three days of receiving the specimen, the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases assembled a full genome of SARS-CoV-2. This was the first sequenced genome of the virus from the African continent.

This was immediately made available to the global scientific community to help inform the public health response, improve surveillance and facilitate drug, diagnostics and vaccine development.

The centre remains at the frontline of Nigeria’s response by carrying out a daily diagnosis of suspected COVID-19 samples. At its disposal are state-of-the-art sequencing and advanced bioinformatic tools to understand the epidemiology, evolution, spread, and virulence of the virus. This has generated data that have informed covid-19 rapid diagnostics development, vaccine design and production, as well as policy formulation. The data have contributed significantly to the international scientific community.

One of the innovations by the centre is a COVID-19 self-screening tool tailored for Nigerians to assess their risk of exposure. This phone app tool factors in not just scientific and epidemiological data but also the socio-cultural diversity of the country. The screening is available in English and different languages are spoken in Nigeria.

Since the app was released, over 4,100 Nigerians have completed the test with over 6,800 users and traffic of over 84,000 as of August 29, 2020. The tool has been effective in reducing panic, improving health access and reducing response time.

In addition to the daily screening of clinical samples, a real-time interactive map showing confirmed cases across Nigeria was developed by the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases. It gives an overview of laboratory-confirmed cases nationwide, using data from the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control.

The map is updated daily as new cases are confirmed and provides an immediate update on the outbreak. This helps the country to identify hotspots and make evidence-based decisions and policies.

Investment in science research is needed

Greater investment in research and development would help Nigeria create a pool of talent and expertise to develop solutions to other problems too.

Investment in science also means investment in the future of science – the next generation of scientists. This would require investing in tertiary education, professional development, and an environment that supports mentorship. It requires infrastructure such as laboratories, laboratory equipment and uninterrupted power supply to carry out experiments.

To achieve this, Nigeria needs political will coupled with commitment, partnerships and the right leadership. The country is lagging behind in science when compared to other African countries in the region but the current pandemic gives it an opportunity to make science a priority once and for all. – The Conversation.

Source: The African Mirror

BOSTON, Oct 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Dozens of children at a clinic in North Kivu, on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), received a measles vaccine in May, made possible by a quiet revolution in refrigeration that keeps vaccines cold, even in places without reliable electric power.

The "solar direct-drive" refrigerators – plain, box-like coolers that do not require fuel or batteries - have helped boost child vaccinations in DRC's poorest rural provinces by 50% in the past year, according to global vaccine alliance Gavi.

That has helped cut child mortality in DRC to half of what it was two decades ago. More than 18 million children were vaccinated last year against a deadly measles outbreak, which has slowed dramatically in recent weeks.

Now the world is looking to launch a far bigger immunisation push once vaccines for COVID-19 become available.

Delivering millions of inoculations in Africa, a sprawling continent with fragile health systems and a lack of electricity to power them, will be a daunting task.

And it remains unclear whether existing off-grid fridges can keep the vaccines cold enough to help.

Refrigeration is essential for vaccine distribution.

Most vaccines require cooling at between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius (35-46 degrees Fahrenheit), but nearly half of the leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates under development will require cold storage as low as minus 80C, researchers say.

In addition, a cold chain distribution network for COVID-19 vaccines will require seamlessly low temperatures from manufacturers to airports to remote rural villages.

Despite advances that have likely saved millions of lives by keeping vaccinations cold in recent years, most African countries still have enormous gaps in such networks.

"It's probably the biggest logistical challenge the world has ever faced, and it's an especially immense challenge for sub-Saharan African countries with significant rural populations," said Toby Peters, a professor specialising in cooling systems for food and medicine at Britain's University of Birmingham.

Dr Shemaghembe Bakeri prepares doses of vaccine and records them in the Electronic Immunization Register before going to a medical outreach post in the Ngorongoro conservation area, Kiragarieni, Tanzania, on October 4, 2018. HANDOUT/GAVI/Hervé Lequeux

DELIVERY 'REVOLUTION'

When William Clemmer, a doctor with faith-based nonprofit IMA World Health, arrived in the DRC in the 1990s, many health centers were using outdated kerosene-powered refrigerators that would often break down, damaging or destroying vaccines.

First-generation solar refrigerators were an improvement, but they required storage batteries that often stopped working after two to three years and were hard to replace.

Solar direct-drive refrigerators changed that, starting about a decade ago.

Costing between $3,500 and $9,000, they are wired directly to solar photovoltaic panels, which provide thermal energy to freeze a thick lining of water, with the ice layer keeping the vaccines inside cool for many days, no matter the weather.

In 2016, only 16% of DRC's rural health centers had working refrigerators, according to Gavi.

Today close to 80% are equipped, many with direct-drive solar units. They have enabled 24,000 monthly immunisation sessions in the nine poorest provinces in the past year, a 50% jump from 2018.

"They've essentially revolutionized vaccine delivery for children in sub-Saharan Africa," said Clemmer.

Karan Sagar, a doctor who heads the health systems and immunisations strengthening team at Gavi, credits the off-grid equipment for achieving a 25% jump in child vaccination rates in Africa from a decade ago.

Since 2017, a $250-million effort led by Gavi has delivered more than 15,300 solar direct-drive fridges to three-dozen African countries, including nearly 3,400 units to the DRC and 5,400 to Nigeria.

Sagar said 87% of children in those African countries received the first dose of a vaccine last year for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough).

"This is a testament to the ability of supply chains to reach even the most remote communities in the world," he said.

A medical staffer stands next to a solar-powered refrigerator used to keep vaccines cold in the Democratic Republic of Congo, on October 12, 2018. HANDOUT/GAVI/Thomas Nicolon

FACTORY TO VILLAGE

It is not only ultra-cold temperatures for COVID-19 vaccines that Africa may need to contend with.

Solar refrigerators are only the last of many steps that will be required to move the vaccines quickly and safely from centralized manufacturing sites - whether inside or outside Africa - to urban and rural destinations across the continent.

At every step along the way – airplanes, warehouses, trucks, motorbikes, bicycles, canoes and even drones – the vaccines must be kept at specific, very cold temperatures, just like other perishable products.

And substantially larger volumes will be needed.

While child vaccination campaigns typically reach about 115 million infants annually worldwide, the COVID-19 vaccine will need to reach as many as 750 million people in Africa alone, health experts predict.

To prepare for this challenge, cold chain expert Peters is leading a government-backed effort to evaluate Africa's needs in delivering an eventual COVID-19 vaccine, working with nonprofit, commercial and academic partners.

They are drawing on lessons from Rwanda, a central-east African country that has made enormous progress in recent years building efficient, climate-friendly cold chains for food and vaccine delivery.

Its system evolves around one warehouse that serves as a cooling hub for vaccines that are distributed to district hospitals, health centres and remote rural health posts, of which dozens are using solar fridges.

The vaccines are reaching more than 95% of the population, according to the World Health Organization.

But replicating Rwanda's success will be a formidable task. "Rwanda is small - countries like Nigeria are much more difficult," Peters said.

FOOD MODEL

Food cold chains where larger-scale commercial capacity is more established will be the kind of model needed, he added.

"We know how to move hundreds of millions of tonnes of fresh food from small farms across Africa to the fridges of consumers in Europe," Peters said. "We need to take this expertise and transfer it to vaccines."

But that is before factoring in the potential ultra-cooling needs COVID-19 vaccines may require - which solar direct-drive fridges are typically not equipped to handle.

Rwanda and the DRC do have firsthand experience of vaccines needing ultra-cold storage in the form of a new vaccine that helped end the Ebola outbreak this past summer.

"Super thermos" coolers, filled with blocks of synthetic alcohol ice, kept the vaccine at minus 60-80C for up to 6.5 days. But the amounts involved were a tiny fraction of what would be needed for an effective COVID-19 vaccine.

"Few African economies have any ultra-cold chain capacity at all," Sagar noted.

Peters is hoping COVID-19 vaccines will require only the standard cold storage at 2-8C, which solar direct-drive refrigerators can provide at rural health centres.

"If mainstream cold chains have to get below that, we have a massive new challenge," he said.

Source: Thomas Reuters Foundation

DAKAR/JOHANNESBURG, Oct 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In rural Sierra Leone, teenagers tuned into solar-powered radios for their lessons, while Kenyan students texted a code to receive free learning guides on their phones.

As COVID-19 shut Africa's schools, governments and charities rushed to make learning accessible to millions of pupils without internet or even electricity, sparking innovations that could keep children learning long after the pandemic has passed.

"The situation... pushed all the governments and education ministries to think in a different way," said Elena Locatelli, an advisor on education in emergencies at the U.N. children's agency UNICEF.

In a matter of months, officials set up distance-learning programmes, often via TV and radio, while charities and start-ups distributed devices and materials to supplement them.

Even as children now return to classrooms, many of the initiatives are set to continue for vulnerable children who struggle to attend school due to poverty or conflict.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the world's highest rate of out-of-school children, with about a third missing out on classes in 2018, according to the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO.

"All these solutions... can also be used in situations in which children have no access to school due to conflict or insecurity, or for children that find themselves on the move," Locatelli told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The rise of distance learning could "completely transform" how countries think about education, said Sarah Smith from the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which has been developing audio lessons for refugee children.

"It could open up opportunities for formal education systems to welcome in things like a radio programme or a new app into their curriculum in a way they have been reluctant to do in the past," said Smith, senior education director at the IRC.

Internally displaced Malian children receive solar-powered radios and school kits from the UNHCR at Sarema school in Mali's Mopti region, July 9, 2020. Credit UNHCR/Alassane Guindo

Education needs are particularly dire in Burkina Faso, where violence has forced 1 million people - more than one in every 20 inhabitants - to flee their homes. Islamist groups wage frequent attacks across the country's northern scrublands.

Before the coronavirus hit in March, 2,512 schools were closed because of the security situation, said Education Minister Stanislas Ouaro.

Although the government had talked about setting up distance learning, it took the pandemic to make it happen, he said.

"Coronavirus was also an opportunity for us," Ouaro said.

"We realized we could develop radio and digital classes that could be a response to the pandemic and to other types of crises, such as the security crisis and natural disasters."

Burkina Faso started broadcasting lessons on radio, television and online after closing all schools in March. Schools reopened for the new year on Oct. 1, but radio classes are continuing for children in conflict-hit areas.

"For us, it's a path of no return," Ouaro said.

While distance learning cannot replace school, it will now be the go-to solution any time education is disrupted, he said.

The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) has backed national remote-learning programmes by distributing solar-powered radios, pens and notebooks in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger - urging the countries to keep broadcasting lessons after COVID-19.

"We would like for next year to continue this activity and to organise some kind of listening groups. It can be in schools where schools can reopen, or it can be in the community where schools cannot reopen," said Charlotte Berquin, an education specialist for West and Central Africa at UNHCR.

'CHALLENGE AND OPPORTUNITY'

Even when children are in school, distance-learning solutions can help address challenges such as overcrowded classrooms, a lack of trained teachers and inadequate materials, said Yesani Kapanda, education programme manager for the charity Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) in Malawi.

This is the aim of VSO's "Unlocking Talent through Technology" project, which provides solar-powered tablets with interactive courses for children to follow at their own pace.

The project started in five schools in 2014 but was scaled up during the pandemic to bring at-home learning to some 200,000 students in total. VSO ultimately hopes to integrate the use of tablets into all primary schools in Malawi.

"There is low absenteeism and dropout rates in the schools (where tablets are used) and the project has reduced the gender dynamics between girls and boys in the acquisition of numeracy and literacy skills," Kapanda said.

An internally displaced Malian girl listens to classes on her solar-powered radio, donated by the UNHCR, at Sarema school in Mali's Mopti region, July 9, 2020. Credit UNHCR/Leandro Andres Salazar-Lievano

In Kenya, the charity Metis took another approach by distributing home learning guides in person and via text message and WhatsApp.

They estimate they were able to reach more than 30,000 students during the coronavirus lockdown with learning materials.

Students send the letters 'EDU' to a certain number and this triggers a series of questions to determine what content to send the learner, with lessons on school subjects including mathematics as well as gardening, storytelling and theatre.

Text-based learning is seen as a possible growth area too.

Eneza Education, an education technology social enterprise operating in Kenya, Ghana and Ivory Coast, opened its SMS platform without charge during lockdown, leading to its use by 2.2 million learners who did not have steady internet access.

The company has now launched in Rwanda with plans to assist more vulnerable students.

Metis co-founder Rebecca Ume Crook said she envisions the model being used long after the pandemic to provide children and caregivers who need support with learning ideas and creative materials.

"We have the challenge and the opportunity to reimagine education as a result of this pandemic, but we have to do so equitably," she said.

Source: Thomas Reuters Foundation

KIM Sledge of the band Sister Sledge will donate proceeds from a cover of the band’s classic song “We Are Family” to the World Health Organization Foundation, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has announced.

“I would like to thank Kim Sledge for her kind offer to donate proceeds from the sale of her special edition cover of We Are Family,” said Tedros, adding that the money would be used to support the COVID-19 response and strengthen health services around the world.

Kim Sledge joined Tedros at a news briefing. – Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Source: The African Mirror