Defend Truth


Africa needs to overcome dangerous dependance on the West and pioneer its own medical research


Zacharia Kafuko is the Africa Chapter Manager of 1Day Sooner. He is a molecular biochemist and a 2017 recipient of the Mandela Washington Fellowship of the Young African Leaders Initiative. He has been the producer and presenter of the award-winning radio programme Science Bench and has been involved in vaccine equity advocacy. He has previously worked as a public health educator under the Water for African Cities programme. He currently lives in the Seychelles.

Africa must break the norm of dependence on Western medical research and development if the continent is to ensure access to life-saving vaccines and medicines in the future.

As an African, when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out late in 2019, I immediately started following events in Europe and America. I knew a sad fact early on: if a solution was to be found for SARS-CoV-2, it would almost certainly come from the West. This is not to suggest that there are no brilliant scientists in Africa. I myself am a molecular biochemist.

Africa has medical doctors, pharmacists, biomedical researchers and academics who have attended prestigious university institutions like Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Princeton and more. But how then is it that each time we are faced with disease outbreaks, our first instinct is to look beyond the continent? How can Africa break this norm? 

Africa has a long unhealthy pattern of dependency on the West in almost all sectors. Besides health, this dependency exists in education, transport and communication, business and even in holding of elections. This level of dependency is neither sustainable nor practical and means Africa may suffer from Covid-19 for years to come. Polio was eradicated in America in 1979, yet it took 40 years to do the same in Africa. 

Covid-19 vaccine distribution is unlikely to be any different. Some African countries have indicated their intent to purchase some doses for their citizens, but this still falls short of actually solving the problem. According to the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, the Serum Institute of India, there will not be “enough Covid-19 vaccines available for everyone in the world to be inoculated until the end of 2024 at the earliest”.

This is the real danger of dependence: Africa is forced to wait at the bottom of the queue. Viruses like SARS-CoV-2 spread exponentially, and the more they spread, the higher the likelihood of mutations that may make pathogens more resistant to available vaccines. Stronger research and development can make the continent self-reliant, which translates into thousands of lives saved. 

Africa has a moral obligation to itself and to future generations to begin offering solutions to these problems. Africa must get involved in medical research if we want to make our relationship with the West mutually beneficial. Africa has talented and intelligent people, like everywhere else in the world, who should be conducting research and clinical trials.

While many Africans are currently advocating equity in the ongoing vaccine roll-out, we should also position ourselves for equity in vaccine development. Africans must participate in clinical trials for not just the Covid-19 vaccines, but for several vaccines and medicines that are developed especially when they are also going to be used by the continent.

This was part of my motivation for volunteering through 1Day Sooner to participate in a Covid-19 human challenge trial. This will help to repudiate some of the mistrust that is associated with vaccines.  

In the interest of finding long-term permanent solutions to this syndrome of depending on the West for help each time we have an epidemic, Africa should consider setting up its own medical research facilities. Instead of accepting donations for vaccine roll-out from Western countries, it would serve a better economic model in Africa to actually set up self-sufficient medical research facilities on the continent.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, wealthy countries gave $49.9-billion in official development assistance to Africa in 2016. This figure continues to grow as populations rise. Building medical research facilities and infrastructure to produce medicines on the continent will be a step closer towards health autonomy. The funding for such an important and modern facility could be sourced from African governments.

The African Union, along with WHO regional office for Africa, would take a lead on this project. Western donors should divert planned donations towards projects that break the norm of dependence and pave the way for self-sufficiency.  

If we do not have our own research facilities and we do not want to participate in clinical trials, Africa will continue to always wait at the end of the queue. Covid-19 is a case in point. DM


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.