A former President of Liberia, Mrs Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, says African countries must work to build research expertise in diseases affecting Africans and create better diagnostics, drugs, vaccines and medical devices in Africa.
Johnson-Sirleaf said this on Thursday during the CelebrateLAB West Africa Conference in Accra, Ghana, and monitored virtually by the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN).
CelebrateLAB Conference is an annual meeting of medical laboratory and research professionals, regulators, policy makers, academia and medical product manufacturers and suppliers.
The conference seeks to proffer solutions to enhance laboratory capacity in the area of human resources, clinical research, vaccines and other medical products manufacturing in West Africa.
The theme of the conference is, “Ensuring Diagnostic Capability and Vaccine Sufficiency as Panacea to Combating Infectious Diseases in West Africa”.
Johnson-Sirleaf noted that enhancing expertise in laboratory science and infrastructure development would assist in building robust health systems.
According to her, West Africa for a while has been battling with one infectious disease after the other, and the region has faced Marburg Virus, Lassa Fever and Dengue Fever.
“We have experienced the devastating effects of the Ebola Virus Disease that destroyed lives and livelihoods in Guinea, Sierra Leone and in my own country, Liberia.
“As President of Liberia, I witnessed at first hand the devastating effects of the infectious disease on the lives of our people and their livelihoods when the Ebola crisis hit our subregion in 2014.
“We saw how the gaps in our healthcare systems are directly linked to our economies. We saw how inadequate medical laboratories and professional expertise dictated our response to the crisis.
“We knew that if we had adequate surveillance mechanisms, the expertise and knowledge in the analysis of emerging infectious disease agents in the subregion and the technology and the capacity to diagnose Ebola cases faster, we could have provided timely treatment and perhaps, saved a lot more lives than we did,” she said.
Johnson-Sirleaf said that it took huge determination to beat Ebola in Liberia and other parts of the subregion and to begin to build resilience for the future.
She noted that currently, the subregion was experiencing the impact of COVID-19 pandemic that had further worsened the plight of economies and brought hardship to the people.
According to her, gaps experienced in the subregion during the Ebola crisis continued to exist when the initial cases of COVID-19 were recorded on the continent.
She listed the gaps faced at the onset of the pandemic to include lack of personal protection equipment, testing kits, medical devices, modern diagnostic infrastructure and limited expertise.
Johnson-Sirleaf noted that this resulted in the region battling in ramping testing and controlling the spread of the virus, leading to deaths of thousands of lives and devastating effects on African economies.
”The World Bank estimates that up to 40 million people have been pushed into extreme poverty on the continent as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.
She, however, said that in spite of the challenges, the subregion, and indeed, Africa, through determination and resilience had done well managing the current pandemic.
Johnson-Sirleaf recognised and celebrated the role played by African medical laboratory scientists in diagnosing and surveillance that assisted in combating COVID-19 disease.
“In the era of evidence based medicine, the medical laboratory scientist’s role in an effective healthcare delivery system cannot be overlooked,” she said.
The former president called on all managers of healthcare systems and health ministries across West Africa to recognise and respect the important contribution of medical laboratory and research professionals in their quest to ensure a healthier continent.
She stressed the need to improve diagnostic capacity of diseases, especially infectious disease and strengthening laboratory environment by applying the lessons learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic and previous outbreaks
Johnson-Sirleaf called for collaboration to enhance the capacity of medical laboratory professionals to meet global standards and be equipped with the necessary logistics and resources to aid them in their work.
She advised strengthening health and collaborative research in the region to ensure that citizens have equitable access to healthcare, and a health system ready to put Africa in front of the line when the next pandemic comes.
Also, Mr Kwaku Agyemang-Manu, Minister of Health, Ghana, said Africa and the West Africa subregion must work toward attaining vaccine sufficiency through production.
Agyemang-Manu said that the current system in which securing access to vaccines was based on advance purchase agreements, incentives of intellectual property, production capacity and competition was not sustainable.
He said that in addressing those challenges, the Ghanaian government had established a Vaccine Production Committee and gotten approval of the Cabinet to establish a Vaccine Institute.
The minister said that the country partnered with Senegal and Rwanda in its vaccine sufficiency agenda.
“With 25 million dollars from the Government of Ghana as seed money, funding support of five million euros from the German Development Cooperation and support from other Development Partners has been secured to take the process forward,” he said.
He said that the private sector-led consortium plant was expected to be fully operational by January 2024 to produce the country’s first COVID-19 vaccines.
Agyemang-Manu noted that it was part of a 10-year roadmap to make Ghana self-sufficient in vaccine production, not only COVID-19 vaccines, and to meet national and regional needs.