Covid-19

Covid-19 and Africa Symposium

Gaps in biosafety and biosecurity could lead to the next global pandemic, scientist warns

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Covid-19 has shown that the world is poorly prepared to handle a pandemic. Few mechanisms were in place to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus and its devastating effect on health systems, the economy and society as a whole. How can Africa, in particular, deal with future pandemics? But most importantly, what checks and balances are in place to prevent future outbreaks?

“Covid-19 has shown our complete lack of global preparedness for a pandemic event,” said Andrew Hebbeler, a lead scientist at the Nuclear Threat Initiative in the United States.

Speaking at the launch of a virtual conference on “Meeting the Challenge of Covid-19 in Africa” on Tuesday, Hebbeler helped shed light on the dangerous gaps in biosafety and biosecurity that could lead to the next global pandemic.

“In our highly interconnected world, biological threats are only increasing. The next pandemic could emerge at any time and may not arise naturally like Covid-19, but could instead result from a laboratory accident or from deliberate misuse.”

Facilitated by Professor Wilmot James from Columbia University, the session included a keynote address from Talkmore Maruta, the Senior Biosafety and Biosecurity Officer at the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and a discussion among fellow panellists Iqbal Parker from the University of Cape Town; Natasha Griffith from Georgia State University and Hebbeler. Isabella Ayagah from the Kenyan Ministry of Health was unable to attend.

The dialogue found that legislation and regulatory frameworks have not kept up with rapid advancements in biotechnology and bioscience. A cause for concern was that pandemic agents that could pose a greater threat to humanity than SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) can be made or modified cheaper, easier and at a faster rate.

 

In his keynote address, Maruta spoke about the Dual Use of Research Concern (DURC) where beneficial life science studies are either purposefully or accidentally misapplied, leading to harm.

Research on Covid-19, for example, has largely been beneficial in demystifying the disease as well as the transmissibility of the virus, aiding the development of vaccines and implementing effective global public health measures. But Maruta says this research can increase the “pathogenicity or transmissibility of potential pandemic pathogens”, putting frontline workers and communities at risk. For example, in 2012 research on the H5N1 virus (bird flu) was discontinued for more than a year when work from two researchers –Yoshihiro Kawaoka and Ron Fouchier – created mutations of the virus which were harmful to humans.

The 2019 Global Health Security Index showed that around the world, preparedness for pandemics was weak. The overall average score was 40.2 out of a possible 100 points, looking at factors such as rapid response, detection and reporting, and the health system. South Africa scored 54.8.

The Africa CDC has launched a three-fold Biosafety and Biosafety Initiative aimed at:

  • Establishing a legal framework to be modified and adopted by member states;
  • Ensuring compliance certification for facilities researching hazardous pathogens; and
  • creating an official list of dangerous agents and toxins to control their transportation, import and export make sure research activities are safe.

Ultimately, regulation is imperative, but it cannot stand in the way of research activities, the dialogue found.

“Innovations and risks in biotechnology and biological science is a fast-moving target and there needs to be a swift response in how one does oversight. We don’t want to choke research — at the same time we need oversight mechanisms to make sure we have good practice,” said James. DM

Daily Maverick is a media partner for the “Meeting the Challenge of Covid-19 in Africa” conference held virtually from 1-4 September and co-hosted by the Universities of Columbia and the Witwatersrand. Register here for upcoming sessions.

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