For citizen safety during infectious disease outbreaks, continuous genomics surveillance is needed – Prof Happi

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?

During outbreaks,

  • 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 (

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.

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