Academic cooperation between Africa, Europe goes forward

Academic cooperation between Africa and Europe is forging ahead, as exemplified by two new research collaborations tackling severe infections in children, as well as a genomic surveillance project to control pathogen infections in Africa.

By Desmond Thompson 01 February 2024

All three of these initiatives are supported by the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP), which funds clinical research for medical tools to detect, treat and prevent poverty-related infectious diseases in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Combating antimicrobial resistance

Expert scientists and clinicians from SNIP-AFRICA and PediCAP, two major research partnerships combating antimicrobial resistance, will convene in South Africa this week to present ground-breaking results and ways to advance antibiotic research tailored to the needs of children and their families, Penta Child Health Research said in a statement on 30 January 2024.

According to the World Health Organization, antimicrobial resistance was responsible for 1.27 million global deaths in 2019, with one in five being children under the age of five. African countries, due to limited resources and variable access to optimal medications, are disproportionately affected by rising levels of antimicrobial resistance, posing significant challenges to child health.

The long-term goal of SNIP-AFRICA and PediCAP is 'to equip participating teams in the South and the North with lasting capability to run, lead and design innovative interventional research, emphasising a commitment to addressing local needs, and tailoring effective interventions to the African context'.

Newborn babies

SNIP-AFRICA will conduct a clinical trial and pharmacokinetic studies to identify the optimal antibiotic dose and regimens that can significantly reduce mortality rates caused by drug-resistant sepsis in newborns, which claims the lives of more than 214,000 babies each year. It commenced its activities with an in-person meeting in Johannesburg on 30 and 31 January.

The project is supported by the Global Health (GH) EDCTP3 partnership and its members, the European Union (EU) and the EDCTP Association. Project coordination is managed by Fondazione Penta ETS, an international scientific network based in Italy, and scientific coordination is managed by the University of London’s St George’s Hospital Medical School (SGUL).

Higher education partners are University College London, the University of Zurich, Stellenbosch University (SU), Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, and the University of Antwerp. Other participants include the Global Antibiotic Research and Development Partnership (GARDP), African Research Collaboration for Health (Kenya), MU-JHU Care (Uganda), and Ifakara Health Institute Trust (Tanzania).

Young children

PediCAP has been looking at antimicrobial resistance in slightly older children. Over the past five years, its main clinical trial has evaluated the optimal drug, dose and duration of oral step-down antibiotics for children aged between two months to six years, hospitalised with severe or very severe community-acquired pneumonia.

The trial results was scheduled to be discussed at a meeting in Johannesburg on 1 and 2 February, and will be widely disseminated thereafter, Penta said in its statement.

PediCAP is part of the EDCTP2 programme supported by the EU, and is also coordinated by Fondazione Penta ETS. The consortium includes Mozambique’s Universidade Eduardo Mondlane, the United Kingdom’s SGUL and University of Oxford, University Teaching Hospital Zambia, the University of Zimbabwe Clinical Trials Research Centre, Makerere University in Uganda, the University of Cape Town, Kwa-Zulu-Natal Research Institute for TB-HIV, and Wits Health Consortium in South Africa, as well as GARDP (Global Antibiotic Research & Development Partnership) and the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute in Switzerland.

GenPath Africa

A third example of research collaboration between Africa and Europe is a project called Genomic Surveillance to Control Pathogen Infections in Africa (GenPath Africa). In September 2023, it received a grant of €5 million (about US$5.4 million) from Horizon Europe, the flagship research and innovation programme of the EU, to better diagnose, monitor and clinically manage current and future epidemics in Africa.

Pre-empting future pandemics

The grant was awarded to a consortium of researchers from South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya, Belgium and Germany. The funding will help them enhance genomic surveillance capacity, strengthen genomic sequencing and provide training in advanced genomic analysis and interpretation in Southern and East Africa.

'Despite the rapid expansion of genomic sequencing capacity and increased genomic surveillance during COVID-19, the global response to the pandemic illuminated the barriers that prevent the world from having readily available, reliable and comprehensive genomic data to aid public health decision-making,' Professor Tulio de Oliveira, director of Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI), the project lead, said in a statement.

African-European collaboration

Besides Stellenbosch University, other members of the consortium are the National Institute of Health of Mozambique, the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya, the Global Health Institute at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, and LINQ management GmbH in Berlin, Germany.

EU research funding explained

Professor Peter Maassen of the University of Oslo told University World News the GenPath Africa grant is one of various examples of joint African-European projects that have been selected for EU funding since the launch of the AU-EU Innovation Agenda in February 2022.

This coincided with an agreement between the EU and the AU on a Global Gateway Africa-Europe Investment Package of €150 billion aimed at supporting Africa to achieve strong, inclusive, green and digital recovery and transformation.

'The EU has a large number of initiatives for funding research and innovation activities, of which Horizon Europe is the largest and most important, and the only one that structurally funds basic research – through the European Research Council,' he explained.

'Specific interests and research issues agreed upon in the GH EDCTP can be used to apply for funding to Horizon Europe, if these interests and issues are included in its biennial work programme.'

Funding cake

Horizon Europe is the ninth EU Framework Programme for Research, with a budget of €95.5 billion.

Maassen explained that the seven-year framework programmes are developed by the European Commission, must be approved by the European Parliament and are funded out of the EU’s budget.

'The EU’s research and innovation policy arena is complex and dense and (over-)filled with instruments and initiatives. This is a consequence of the complex relationship between the EU level and the national (member state) level,' he said.

'This relationship has been referred to in the academic literature as resembling a marble cake that has to be cut in slices in order to understand the division of competences between EU and member states in practice.

'The EU wants to maximise its competences and uses the instruments it has been allowed to develop in the research and innovation area, such as the framework programmes, for funding the GH EDCTP, which is in an area where it not allowed or does not have the human and-or funding capacity to develop new funding instruments.

'Formally, the framework programmes do not need to be approved by the EU member states but, in practice, the Commission always negotiates with the governments to make sure that they support the final version and budget of each Framework Programme.

'The current Framework Programme – Horizon Europe – is the first ever that has funding earmarked for research and-or innovation collaboration between European organisations (including universities) and organisations in a non-EU region, Africa. This is referred to as the Africa Initiative,' Maassen said.

Focus on Africa

Maassen took up a one-fifth appointment as Envoy of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities in October 2023, devoting 20% of his time to supporting the further development of the body’s relationship with the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), in general, and the Clusters of Research Excellence (CoRE) initiative, in particular.

CoRE was approved by the leaders of ARUA and The Guild member universities at a joint meeting in Brussels in June 2023 – accompanied by the launch of 17 clusters, expanded to 20 clusters three months later.

News date: 2024-02-01