Seven years ago, on April 25th, 2000, African leaders from 44 malaria-endemic countries participated in the first-ever African Summit on Malaria, and declared April 25th as Africa Malaria Day. This year, for the first time, the United States will officially commemorate Malaria Awareness Day, celebrating progress and highlighting opportunities in the fight against malaria. To underscore the U.S. commitment to ending malaria related deaths, President Bush embraced the urgency of the cause by designating April 25th, 2007 as Malaria Awareness Day.
Tom Egwang, the director-general of Medical Biotechnology Laboratories in Kampala, Uganda writes in SciDev.Net that Africa should be the driver, not the co-pilot of malaria vaccine development. He writes:
African researchers in resource-poor countries are as competent and knowledgeable as their Northern partners. They publish research articles in leading peer-review journals, present findings at international conferences, read the same literature and attend the same symposia.
So why aren’t they designing malaria vaccines themselves? The stock response to this — as it seems to be to all Africa’s development challenges — is a lack of funds. But putting pen to paper to design a vaccine does not cost money. It takes creativity and innovation — attributes that we on the continent surely possess.
Getting the policy emphasis right
Effective research and development (R&D) does, of course, need funding. But to say that the lack of malaria vaccine R&D in Africa is due to poverty is a lie.
African governments can afford to buy presidential jets and bail out floundering companies. They maintain huge defence budgets and engage in recurrent military adventurism. These actions cost the continent hundreds of millions of dollars — money that could instead be used to develop malaria vaccines.
Similarly, petrodollar profits from oil-rich states like Gabon, Libya or Nigeria could be used to support malaria R&D efforts within and beyond their own borders.
The European Union — a region that has no malaria — currently supports a multi-million dollar network of excellence in malaria research. These funds could, again, have been better spent supporting R&D efforts in Africa.
Misguided funding policies have been accompanied by lopsided training policies that have created a polarised malaria research world.
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African scientists running R&D projects must make herculean efforts to mentor a new generation of Africans to tackle malaria vaccine R&D head-on. This also means lobbying their governments to invest in research — before the North-South divide becomes an abyss.
University curricula should emphasise product development and entrepreneurship. Strategic partnerships with African organisations like the Uganda Industrial Research Institute would facilitate the development of pilot biotechnology projects.
In this way, products developed by academia could be scaled up on a semi-industrial scale for proof-of-concept studies.
African policymakers have hitherto only paid lip service to African science. They must now embrace it as the engine for socio-economic development in Africa, giving it unequivocal and solid financial support.