Experts say funding key to local Covid-19 research


Sindiso Mhlophe


OVER 90 years ago, Scottish researcher Alexander Fleming accidentally stumbled upon a mould while at the time experimenting with an influenza virus in a Laboratory of the Inoculation Department at St Mary’s Hospital in London.

Often described as a careless lab technician, his accidental stumble on the mould led to the discovery of penicillin, which went on to become the world’s first antibiotic or bacteria killer.

“One sometimes finds what one is not looking for. When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionise all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did,” Fleming was quoted saying then.

The introduction of penicillin in the 1940s, which began the era of antibiotics, has been recognised as one of the greatest advances in therapeutic medicine, because before its introduction there was no effective treatment for infections such as pneumonia, gonorrhoea or rheumatic fever.

Fast forward to nine decades later, a new threat, the novel coronavirus also referred to as Covid-19, has taken the world by storm, resulting in the deaths of over 360 000 people and the infection of almost six million others across the globe, while bringing both major and small economies to a screeching halt.

Covid-19 has left scientists and researchers across the globe in a race against time to understand the disease in terms of how it behaves, how it is contracted, how it can be prevented and most importantly to find the cure for the deadly disease.

The government of Zimbabwe has indicated that it is conducting research to find out how local herbs can help in the fight against Covid-19 and improve its preparedness to deal with the deadly disease. It was estimated that over $10 million would be needed to initiate the research.

Medical and health experts who spoke to the Daily News said while it was important for the country to venture into Covid-19 research using indigenous knowledge systems, funding was the most critical element of the research process if it is to be sustainable and yield tangible results.

“The government’s decision to conduct locally-based research is a welcome development which ensures the generation of contextually relevant evidence. Covid-19 is a challenging and new infectious disease which needs evidence based policy interventions and research will help in this regard.

“Most research in infectious diseases is crippled by lack of funding. There is huge potential for coming up with cutting edge research in infectious diseases in our local universities, but we need to have some dedicated funds for such research,” chairperson of the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) Fortune Nyamande said.

Community Working Group on Health (CWGH) executive director Itai Rusike said the creation of a local consortium of researchers to carry out locally-based research on Covid-19 was a welcome development that needed to be fully funded and supported as Zimbabwe has a history of not prioritising research even in its national budget allocations.

“In the absence of a vaccine or effective treatment, there is an understanding that research can come up with the scientific measures needed to prevent resurgence in cases, while also avoiding knock-on effects of the measures used that themselves generate harm.

“Given that it is unlikely that Covid-19 will be completely eliminated in 2020, and with uncertainty on the time frame for a vaccine, decisions going forward call for an integration of diverse evidence on public health, social protection and socio-economic risks and strategies, including from the lived experience of and reports from communities, sectors and services,” Rusike said.

“It would be important for the researchers to make clear the findings and strategic evidence, analysis and principles that will be informing their decisions, given their consequence for society.

“Given the limitations in resources and technical capabilities within our research institutions, it will be good for our researchers to partner and collaborate with those from better resourced countries with well-equipped and established research institutions.”

Senior Hospital Doctors Association (SHDA) secretary-general Aaron Musara said international research on Covid-19 has already laid the foundation for local researchers to take it forward using indigenous knowledge systems and experiences in dealing with infectious diseases.

“Properly constituted research can certainly be done locally by local experts. We just need to have the resources properly channelled into bonafide researches and we have the potential for making a difference.

“The understanding of the virus has been improved greatly through information generated in different countries and having locally generated knowledge can help salvage the situation, both for our setting and for the rest of the world,” Musara said.

Madagascar, through the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research, has come up with Covid Organics (CVO) currently available in the form of herbal tea, while a new injectable solution of the same product is under clinical trials.

So far, Madagascar which has 656 confirmed cases, 154 recoveries and two deaths, has attributed the increase in the number of recoveries to the CVO, which has been exported to several African countries, including Comoros Island, Guinea Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Niger, Tanzania, Nigeria, Senegal and Chad.

Although the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned against the use of CVO without medical supervision and cautioned against self-medication, one cannot deny the importance of conducting locally-based research using indigenous knowledge systems and experience in dealing with infectious diseases.

Health and Child Care minister Obadiah Moyo said the government was committed to conducting research on Covid-19 by exploring, indigenous herbs just like Madagascar.

“We as Zimbabwe are also carrying out research on Covid-19 response. The most interesting one is that we want to also look at the effects of our herbs here in Zimbabwe.

“You have heard about what Madagascar has come up with. We have our teams here who are also working quietly on these issues and we want to use the opportunity to come up with some results,” he said.

“This is a very important component in our case management. I would also like to indicate that we have so many experts in Zimbabwe and they are involved in research on Covid-19. Some of our research is on the efficiency of our testing systems, the Rapid Diagnostic Tests (RDTs).

“Covid-19 knows no boarders or state of the economy and development, so it is important that we conduct research and constantly improve our preparedness,” he added.

Covid-19, indeed, knows no borders or economic status. One of the key takeaways from this global pandemic is the importance of putting health and research first.



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