In recent years, there has been a noticeable global resurgence of some infectious diseases, that were previously declared eradicated, and the emergence of new pathogens which are fuelling epidemics around the world. With the Nigerian population estimated to be over 200 million and continuous traffic across its borders, the impact of an outbreak of any infectious disease in the country could be devastating, if adequate surveillance, preventive, diagnostic and treatment measures are not continually available. In addition to the research and other activities of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), several research institutions in the country are tackling the challenge of infectious and communicable diseases, especially those with the potential of morphing into epidemics. A notable such research outfit is the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) of the Reedemer’s University, Ede, Nigeria. ACEGID, which continues to pioneer several innovations in infectious disease control, has Professor Christian Tientcha Happi, a serial award winner, as its Director. In this exclusive interview with The Chronicle of Education, Professor Happi explains some of the research activities and achievements of ACEGID. The full text of the interview, as conducted by our higher education reporter, Anu Oyeleye, is reproduced below.
Kindly introduce yourself to our teeming readers.
I am a professor of molecular biology and genomics in the department of Biological sciences at Redeemer’s University, the Director of African Centre of Excellence for genomics of infectious diseases and also the Director of the Directorate of Research Innovations and Partnerships, Redeemer’s University, Nigeria. I have a BSc in Biochemistry in 1993 at the University of Yaounde, An MSc and PhD in Molecular Parasitology at the University of Ibadan at 1995 and 2000 respectively and did a post- doctoral research at Harvard University school of public health in Molecular biology and genomics between 2000 – 2003. My research focus is on Human genomics, molecular biology and genomics of infectious diseases especially malaria, viral haemorrhagic fevers (such as Ebola, Lassa) and also HIV. Throughout my career, I have used innovated approaches which combines patient care, fieldwork, molecular biology and genomics for discoveries that have improved viral diagnosis, pharmacogenomics, clinical research and public health care. I am also passionate about building research capacity in Africa through training and mentoring.
What was the rationale for establishment the African Centres of Excellence by the participating Governments and the World Bank?
The rationale for the establishment of African Centers of Excellence was:
- to develop the capacity of Africans in the area of research,
- to train Africans to address issues affecting Africa, especially infectious diseases and education among others.
- to develop instruments and diagnostic kits that can be used to identify and characterize pathogens that relate to infectious diseases in Africa and develop counter measures against them.
What are the key objectives of the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of
Infectious Diseases (ACEGID)?
- To develop a critical mass of well-trained African genomic scientists,
- To create a vibrant academic and research environment for genomics research in Africa,
- To build state-of-the art genomics infrastructure for research in Africa,
- To empower African researchers to optimally utilize genomics knowledge and tools for infectious diseases surveillance, control and elimination,
- To engage communities in prevention efforts, and public health education.
How true is it that the research activities of ACEGID were initially expected to be carried out in collaboration with some researchers at the University of Ibadan?
We work with a lot of collaborators across the world and also locally, including the University of Ibadan..
Which institutions inside and outside Nigeria does ACEGID currently collaborate with?
Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Tulane University, Stanford University, University of Cambridge, University of Connecticut, The Scripps Institute, University of Ibadan, Cheik Anta-Diop University. University of Sierra-Leone
How problem-solving have been the collaborations?
With constant communications between ACEGID and collaborators through updates and meeting, problem-solving has been made easier because collaborators bring a lot of ideas, suggestions and alternative ways of solving problems based on experiences they have had in their different regions.
What are the infectious diseases that ACEGID is principally concerned with and why?
ACEGID is particularly concerned with infectious diseases of public health importance such as; Malaria, Lassa fever, yellow fever, Ebola, Monkey pox and others. We also have a special focus on fever of unknown origins because these fevers have been identified to have high mortality rate and a high risk of epidemic outbreak.
Are there emerging infectious diseases that this nation should be particularly concerned about?
Infectious diseases associated with viral hemorrhagic fever which could be easily misdiagnosed by public health officials as simple fevers.
What innovations is ACEGID introducing into the understanding of the genomics of the infectious diseases that it studies?
Some of ACEGID’s innovations are:
- Diagnostic strip test for viral hemorrhagic fevers.
- Development of novel pan-Lassa rapid diagnostic test.
- Development of next generation Sequencing technologies for detection and
characterization of various pathogens responsible for fever across the West African landscape.
- Use of Genomics Epidemiology for Early detection and containment of disease outbreaks in the West African region.
What are ACEGID’s key achievements till date?
Some of ACEGID’s achievements till date are:
- Discovery of neutralizing antibodies that could serve as immunotherapeutics against the Lassa fever virus.
- Development of 10 mins Rapid Diagnostic test for Ebola virus.
- Sequencing of the Ebola virus circulating in West Africa and providing sequencing data for the world scientific and research community to accelerate intervention strategies.
- Uncovering the ancient origins of Lassa fever virus.
- Discovery of two new rhabdoviruses virus called Ekpoma Virus 1 (EKV-1) and
Ekpoma Virus 2 (EKV-2).
- Development of novel Pan-Lassa rapid diagnostic test (ReLASV).
- Sequencing of Monkeypox samples through the 2017 Monkeypox outbreaks in
- Use genomics Sequencing for discovering a Yellow fever outbreak in Nigeria in
2018 and use the data to guide NDCD intervention in the field.
Given the huge resources at its disposal, could ACEGID not have achieved much more?
Based on resources made available to ACEGID, the achievements and impact of ACEGID exceeds expectations, considering the amount of work done for development of new genomics technologies and diagnostics development, discovery of new pathogens, human capacity and infrastructure development. In addition, ACEGID has been able to innovate in the Nigerian educational landscape by establishing Masters and PhD programmes at Redeemer’s University that have received international accreditation by a European Accreditation body called AQAS. Furthermore, these achievements are notwithstanding the fact that ACEGID is still at the infancy and was established only 6 years ago. These achievements are unprecedented in the history of research and education in Nigeria and Africa.
How are ACEGID’s achievements changing the landscape of research in the genomics of infectious diseases in Africa?
ACEGID has enabled Africans to research into current challenges within its continent using its resources such as was seen during the Ebola outbreak. It has also provided a training center within Africa where scientists (especially young researchers) are been trained to carry out cutting edge research with the availability of latest technologies thus producing young, vibrant, knowledgeable, skilled and competent researchers who will impact Africa.
The World Health Organization, National Institute for Biomedical Research (INRB) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) have announced that the survival rate of patients, with low viral loads of the Ebola virus, in the clinical trials of two recently developed drugs (code-named REGN-EB3 and mAB114) was as high as 90%. Was ACEGID involved in the development of the drugs or the clinical trials?
Is ACEGID working on the design and development of a drug for the Ebola virus disease?
What are the key challenges faced by ACEGID in carrying out its research and training activities?
ACEGID’s key challenges are:
- Inadequacy of Funds.
- Infrastructural challenges.
- The National and international policy U-turns.
- Insufficient human capacity.
- Lack of understanding of the essence of the Center by governing bodies in Nigeria, thus limiting the ability of the Center to make higher impact.
How is ACEGID meeting the challenges?
To deal with the challenges, ACEGID has employed the following strategies:
- Increasing motivation for research.
- Focus on grants targeting young researchers.
- Making policy makers understand the link between research and development through constant communication.
- Sourcing for grants from external bodies.
How should Nigerians respond to outbreaks of diseases such as the Ebola virus disease, Lassa fever, tuberculosis and monkey pox?
- ensure that you follow the health regulations and measures stated by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and the Ministry of Health,
- ensure that you have adequate knowledge of viral hemorrhagic fevers with adequate application in daily life: preventive and curative measures.
- Government should ensure public awareness on these disease
What kind of help would be available to Nigerians from ACEGID during the outbreak of an infectious disease?
During the outbreak of an infectious disease, ACEGID will
- ensure the development of effective cutting-edge diagnostic tools for quick and effective diagnosis at affordable prices,
- provide immediate solutions to disease,
- ensure the availability of trained personnel from multi-disciplinary fields who would carry out safe diagnostic, surveillance, awareness and epidemiological studies.
Given the freedom of movement across borders in the ECOWAS sub-region, what is the best way to keep the citizens of this sub-region safe from outbreaks of infectious diseases?
Continuous genomics surveillance. In addition, one of the initiatives that ACEGID focuses on is routine outreaches to educate its community on infectious disease status in its region and surrounding regions. This will help to alert citizens on health precautions to take especially in terms of crossing borders.
Is there any kind of regional cooperation in the handling of issues concerning infectious diseases in the ECOWAS subregion?
Yes. The different African Centres of Excellence are in constant communications with National and regional health Organizations in West Africa. The ACEGID is also in regular communication with the Africa Centre of Disease Control (Africa CDC) and Pan-African public health organizations. There is also constant cooperation between ACEGID and public and private health sectors in different regions tackling infectious diseases.
How does ACEGID contribute to research capacity building for the management of infectious diseases in the ECOWAS subregion, in particular, and Africa, in general?
One of the mandates of ACEGID is to ensure that Africa has its own research and innovative solutions to tackle developmental challenges and infectious diseases through producing capacity. The Director, Prof Christian Happi, has a passion for acquiring knowledge and skills required for field and management of infectious disease but most importantly impacting that knowledge and skills by continuously partnering with research centres, institutions to train and mentor scientists, professional health care practitioners and policy makers in the management of infectious disease.
What is ACEGID’s gender policy in capacity building?
ACEGID’s gender policy is focused on ensuring there is no gender bias in capacity building, and ensuring each gender is given equal opportunity.
How is ACEGID monitored and evaluated to ensure that the resources at its disposal are applied with accountability, its activities are carried out as planned and the expected outcomes are realised?
Monitoring and evaluation is constantly carried out by both national and international bodies such as shown below. Thus far, ACEGID has shown great accountability by receiving positive recommendations as well as commendations by both local and international Auditing
Organizations. The local organizations are: : the National Universities Commission (NUC), Association of African universities (AAU) and Nigeria Center for Disease control, while the international organizations are: the World bank, International accreditation bodies, Center for Disease Control. In addition, for fiduciary and financial transparency, ACEGID’s accounts are audited by an accredited external Auditor that is approved by the World Bank. The audited account details and reports of ACEGID are publicly available on the website of the Centre (www.acegid.org).
What are the chief benefits to Nigeria, ECOWAS sub-region and Africa of the existence of ACEGID?
The existence of ACEGID has helped Africa to tackle some major health challenges such as the Ebola outbreak and produce skilled competent and knowledgeable researchers researching into health issues within the continent. ACEGID has also partnered with other research center within and outside its region to train its staff and provide equipment to encourage and boost their work. ACEGID aims to develop not just science in Africa by building state-of-the-art infrastructure and training Centre but majorly the development of field deployable tools and trained personnel to tackle different public health challenges, because Africa needs its own research and innovative solutions to tackle development challenges and infectious diseases which continue to exact a toll on families and African economies.
Research productivity in Nigeria is rated as low compared to, for example, that of South Africa. In your opinion, what is responsible for this?
A dearth of in-country researchers with specialized skills, inability of Nigerian researchers to work in multidisciplinary teams, poor funding for research and sub-optimal infrastructural facilities and limited use of research findings by policy makers.
Does ACEGID have any partnerships with the industry? If yes, could you sketch the main objectives of the partnerships?
Yes: in line with ACEGID’s mandate to develop an African research capacity in genomics by building a critical mass of well-trained scientists. Some of its objectives are to:
- create multi-disciplinary collaborations to promote an atmosphere of learning,
- generate opportunities to contribute towards the conception of new strategies for combating health challenges amongst others,
- contribute to the provision of data which can be mapped to ontologies where applicable,
- increase awareness and exposure to new technologies,
- achieve an enhanced stature in academia and industry,
- create opportunities to enhance the knowledge base of ACEGID and generate access to a highly trained pool of potential personnel.
Is ACEGID able to secure supplementary funding from other sources than the World Bank?
Yes, so far ACEGID has been able to secure other funding from organizations such as the US Army among others and an aspect of ACEGID is focused on training its researchers on grant-winning proposals to boost its ability to attract grants to the Centre.
How sustainable is ACEGID after the World Bank funding comes to an end?
ACEGID focuses on ensuring that it is well supported by the science and research immediate community and industry that it intends to serve and by all levels of leadership within the non-profit. We also focus on not only on highly competitive grants such as NIH but also applying for diverse, smaller grants from private funding sources such as foundations or corporate collaborations.
What special messages would you like to pass to Nigerians, the public and private sectors and Governments at all levels on the control of infectious diseases and their outbreaks?
In order to solve a problem, we have to understand the problem. ACEGID strives to get a deeper understanding of these infectious diseases and causative agent using cutting-edge technology and applying this knowledge to develop diagnostic tools and ready to use field deployable tools to ensure we are a step ahead of the public health outbreaks. Join us in this fight today.
Thank you for this exclusive interview with The Chronicle of Education.