Increased productivity, economic diversification, and structural reforms across Africa will require the strategic production and retention of many highly skilled and employable graduates, particularly in key fields related to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), as well as health and agriculture. These are areas where Africa is currently experiencing a shortage of well-trained scientists and engineers, as well as limited research options. The limited number of quality higher education programs perpetuates low enrolments and produces poor research outputs. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics (UIS), the higher education gross enrolment rate for sub-Saharan Africa was only 9 percent in 2018, as compared to 74 percent in high-income Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. According to the “Blueprint for the Revitalization of University Education in Nigeria”(2019-2023), it is estimated that there will be a shortfall of 30 percent in the required number of academic staff (with an even more acute situation in the STEM fields) in Nigeria.
The need for regional coordination and collaboration in overcoming public health challenges is crucial. In this context, the ACEGID is using its project funds, knowledge base, and collaboration with internal and external researchers to develop solutions to counter immediate health threats, as well as to detect and respond to future outbreaks. The ACEGID is aiming to train a critical mass of scientists capable of utilizing genomics-based tools to monitor, control, and eliminate infectious diseases. It will do so by using state-of-the-art genomic technology to identify pathogens driving illnesses and developing innovative solutions, such as a rapid diagnostic test for Lassa fever. The ACE project’s focus on state-of-the-art equipment procurement, enhanced teaching and learning, increased regional outreach, and institutional impact will all help to turn the ACEGID into a regional hub for African scientists to carry out vital genetic research projects. The project also increases engagement with local communities, for example, the ACEGID leads public awareness campaigns and public health training regarding infectious diseases with local and rural communities. This is a critical element of public health prevention and response. Externally, the ACEGID is part of a strong international network, including the Africa Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Nigeria CDC, further ensuring its sustainability.
The ACEGID is actively forming and strengthening a network of national, regional and global partners to promote and protect public health by establishing in-country genome sequencing capacity in Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone. It will also train personnel in these countries. In collaboration with the Nigeria CDC, the ACEGID was the first institution in Africa to successfully sequence genomes for the SARS-Cov-2. Since then, it has identified 55 variants of the virus, including the B.1.1.7 (United Kingdom) variant discovered in December 2020, and it has tested more than 42,000 samples from Nigeria. It has also partnered with the Nigeria CDC to train frontline health personnel in Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) diagnostic techniques, as well as the nationwide transportation of samples. As a result of these achievements, the ACEGID has been mandated by the Africa CDC to sequence all samples from African Union member states that lack sequencing capacities. Additionally, the ACEGID sequenced 216 COVID-19 samples from Cameroon. In September 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) named the ACEGID as one of two specialized continental reference sequencing research laboratories for emerging pathogens, including the SARS-CoV-2.
In collaboration with the Nigeria CDC, the ACEGID has contributed to data for policymakers by proactively countering misinformation with quality data. It has also provided awareness messages about COVID-19 preventive measures, which have helped the Government of Nigeria to make policy decisions to flatten the infection curve.
The ACEGID partnered with an information technology (IT) company to rapidly diagnose viruses and develop vaccines. It has developed a free, web-based self-screening tool available in English, as well as the different languages spoken in Nigeria, to assesses user symptoms and exposure to determine their risk. It also developed a diagnostic care kit that identifies a wide range of viruses using a paper strip, producing the results in 30 minutes. Finally, the ACEGID developed a COVID-19 vaccine candidate, which showed over 90 percent effectiveness during preclinical trials.
The ACEGID was also at the forefront of research during the Ebola outbreak, and it has led the response to Ebola and Lassa Fever. Sequencing the first case of Ebola in Nigeria, the ACEGID contributed to containing the epidemic through the development of rapid diagnostic test kits. It developed and patented two rapid diagnostic test kits for the Ebola and Lassa Fever viruses, providing for a diagnosis of the disease in 10 minutes.
Since 2014, over 1,000 students have completed post-graduate degrees and short-term training programs at the ACEGID in Microbiology, Pharmacy, Bioinformatics, Molecular Biology and Genomics, and the Sanger Sequencing Technique. This was achieved since the center began receiving support under the ACE series. In addition, the ACEGID’s academic staff have published over 200 peer-reviewed journal articles, including publications in the prestigious international journal Nature.
The ACEGID received a total of $8.5 million under the Africa Higher Education Centers of Excellence (ACE) Project. It received an additional $5 million under the Second ACE Impact Project. All funding came from IDA.
The design of the ACE series of projects aims to promote and foster university partnerships, both regionally and internationally, to improve the quality of research, teaching, and innovation, as well as to ensure the long-term sustainability of the centers. Additionally, the ACE Impact Projects have leveraged partnerships with the Agence française de développement (AFD) to co-finance ACEs in Benin ($11.2 million), Côte d’Ivoire ($21 million), and Nigeria ($40 million).
The ACEGID has mobilized funding in the amount of US$100 million from various development partners. Partners include The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), The ELMA Foundation, The Skoll Foundation, the African Academy of Sciences, The Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, USAID, The Joint West Africa Research Group (JWARG), and The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).
The ACEGID’s regional partners include the Université Cheick Anta Diop/Hopital Le Dantec (Senegal), the University of Sierra Leone/Kenema Government Hospital (Sierra Leone), the Nigeria CDC, and the Irrua Specialist Teaching Hospital (Nigeria). The ACEGID’s international partners include Harvard University, Tulane University, the University of Cambridge, the Wellcome Trust, and the U.S. Department of Defence.
Looking to the Future
The ACE Impact Projects were designed to ensure that universities would continue to grow beyond the projects’ lifetime. As such, efforts are being made to build the universities’ capacity to generate external revenues and develop key partnerships within their sectors. Since the 2020 outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the field of genomics is rapidly growing in Africa. Importantly, this growth has been spearheaded by the ACEGID. Also, some of the tools being developed by the center have the potential for commercialization, which will raise more revenues for the ACEGID. The ACEGID will inaugurate the biggest genomics research center in Africa. Further, it was selected in May 2020 by the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University to be a part of a prestigious scientific coalition that will help establish an early warning system across the region to prevent and respond to future outbreaks, including epidemics and pandemics. This represents a timely opportunity in the efforts to defeat COVID-19.
(1) Judith Uche Oguzie (PhD Fellow)
“My Master’s degree program at [the] ACEGID greatly impacted my life. It gave me access to world-class laboratory facilities, a conducive and enabling environment, and fantastic lecturers and researchers as mentors. For me, it was nothing short of a miracle, given the nature and challenges unique to our African environment. I was exposed to high-quality research and education right here at home (on African soil), that normally would have meant travelling out of the continent. I also had the privilege of attending various training [programs], both within and outside the country, including [at] Harvard University and the Broad Institute of MIT. This gave me the opportunity to meet and interact with the best brains in the field of genomics of infectious diseases. I dare say that these trainings and exposure have completely empowered me and changed my life forever.”
(2) Jessica Uwanibe (PhD Fellow)
“[The] ACEGID has given me a good foundation in the field of molecular biology and genomics. When it comes to the kind of techniques that we use in studying infectious diseases, I do not think I am lacking in any way compared with those outside of this continent. Most of the techniques we are using are what they use out there. With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been able to apply the knowledge learnt over time. It is intriguing being part of the team that developed the CRISPR-based SHERLOCK rapid diagnostic test kit. The experience is eye opening: knowing that we can produce tools that are fast and go straight to testing at the molecular level. It is quite interesting to be part of something like that. It’s a good one because you’d rarely find a facility like this where you can do such research if you do not travel out[side]. Having all these experiences here (in Africa) at a fraction of what it would cost in developed countries is a very beautiful thing.”
3) Deployment of Post-graduate Students
“We were in Nigeria when the pandemic started. We were rushed back here to come and fight the pandemic. My experience at [the] ACEGID helped me to understand standard laboratory procedures and safety protocols better. These procedures and protocols were the first things that I applied when I returned to Liberia, and I shared it with my team here. These have helped us a lot as we work on COVID-19 samples. Presently, we are performing diagnosis using [the] PCR [test]. We will be going into further research to understand it better.”
Lawrence S. Fakoli III, Masters of Science Student at the ACEGID & Research Associate, Division of Public Health and Medical Research, National Public Health Institute of Liberia (NPHIL)
(4) Director General of Nigeria Centre for Disease Control – Chike Ihekweazu
“There is a lot to be done for science development in Africa, but we are building a good foundation with the help of Professor Happi. His work in establishing the ACEGID has contributed greatly to fighting pathogens and aiding health security. Genomic sequencing done by the excellent team at the ACEGID has enabled a better understanding of the COVID-19 spread in Nigeria.”