In celebration of May marking Africa month, the University of Pretoria (UP) hosted a webinar titled, What the Future Holds for our Continent Following the COVID-19 Pandemic. The webinar sought to discuss Africa’s contributions to research related to the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on the Future Africa Institute’s aim to create a platform that will connect transformative research projects related to COVID-19.

The Webinar was moderated by Dr Joel Modiri, a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Jurisprudence at UP. The panellists who participated in the webinar comprised of Professor Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of UP, Professor Cheikh Mbow, the Director of Future Africa and Professor Wanda Markotter, the Director of UP’s Centre for Viral Zoonoses.

The University of Pretoria’s Future Africa Institute has aimed to bring together global researchers and networks of scientists to articulate research ventures that contribute to Africa’s sustainable development. Prof. Mbou affirmed that the Future Africa Institute intends to link a visionary set of long term research initiatives with the sustainable use of natural resources an integral part of the modus operandi used in these research initiatives. As per the COVID-19 research continuity plan, special arrangements for postdoctoral fellows, and residents of Future Africa were formulated and ongoing essential research was kept going through the lockdown.

…focusing on the Future Africa Institute’s aim to create a platform that will connect transformative research projects related to COVID-19.

Furthermore, the emergence of these research ventures allows African researchers to patent their intellectual property on a global scale. Prof. Kupe asserted that a deviation from insular research needed to be undertaken to ensure that the findings of the research ventures actually reach and benefit the citizens it is intended for. He mentioned that this would generate a “Co-creation of knowledge that sustains humanity”. Prof. Markotter also said that “a broader understanding of cultural and societal aspects of a disease” needed to be discerned to come up with long term innovative solutions to curb disease outbreaks.

Relevant Read: The origin of the coronavirus: What we know so far

In response to Dr Modiri’s question on how the UP staff and student community can get academic activities back on track and make up for lost time in a post-lockdown setup, Prof. Kupe reiterated that “No institution has been left unscathed” by the pandemic and said that UP’s reimagining of the academic calendar has allowed the inclusion of all aspects of academic activity. Furthermore, Prof. Kupe cited that funds would be mobilised to hire tutors and teaching assistants who would provide academic support to students who suffered the brunt of technical glitches during online learning. Prof. Kupe also said that should the predicted spike in COVID-19 infections in September arise, the academic calendar would be revised to go into 2021.

In elaborating on the kind of research initiatives that need to be formulated Prof. Markotter indicated that the challenges that individuals find themselves in, provide new opportunities to create collaborative initiatives for knowledge sharing. She urged that an African perspective be used when approaching research initiatives in order to make the outcome of the research more relevant to the African societal setup. In substantiating this point, Prof. Markotter mentioned the development of vaccines applicable to Africa, to enable supply to be readily generated when the need arises. Furthermore, Prof. Markotter stressed the importance of adopting a broader focus approach, which deviated from solely focusing on COVID-19 when formulating research initiatives. This, she argues, will thwart investment into unsustainable initiatives that could become void in future.

…a deviation from insular research needed to be undertaken to ensure that the findings of the research ventures actually reach and benefit the citizens it is intended for.

Prof. Markotter is currently undertaking research related to the presence of different types of zoonotic viruses (with the coronavirus being one of them) present in bats and other terrestrial mammals in Africa. Using this information, the study aims to analyse the potential sources of transmission to other animals which will allow scientists to garner an understanding of how Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) related viruses afflict humans. The outcomes of research initiatives like these, will enable scientific communities to contain potential emergences of other pandemics in future.

PDBY posed several questions to Prof. Markotter pertaining to the zoonotic studies currently being undertaken at UP. Prof. Markotter’s research venture seeks to look at the presence of coronaviruses in animal species that have been previously implicated in zoonotic events in the world or species that have been known to possess zoonotic pathogens. Prof. Markotter confirmed that some of the animal species that have been studied in the venture include “the Egyptian fruit bat that has been linked to Marburg outbreaks, Rhinolophus (Horse shoe bats) genus (linked to coronavirus spillovers) and long-fingered bats implicated as a potential host of Ebola.” All of which are widespread in the African region including South Africa.

One of the most important questions that remains unanswered regarding the pandemic, is the origin of the SARS CoV-2 (causative agent of the disease, COVID-19). A few bio-surveillance studies have confirmed that a particular genus of horseshoe bats known as Rhinolophus, possess the closest related SARS CoV-2 virus strand to humans. Prof. Markotter ascertained that the biosurveillance study being undertaken at UP also looks at horseshoe bats to detect the presence of coronaviruses but asserted that the study is yet to find SARS related coronavirus in bats in Southern Africa. Furthermore, Prof. Markotter confirmed that the biosurveillance is currently being expanded on.

The outcomes of research initiatives like these, will enable scientific communities to contain potential emergences of other pandemics in future.

In responding to PDBY’s query on updates pertaining to the studies, Prof. Markotter contextualised that initial studies chiefly focused on bat-borne pathogens in western and central Africa (due to these areas being prone to Ebola and Marburg disease outbreaks), as opposed to the Southern African region. However, a multidisciplinary team of South African scientists who were undertaking research on rabies-related lyssaviruses in South Africa, built up their experience to establish a biosurveillance program on bat-borne pathogens exclusively in South Africa. Furthermore, Prof. Markotter asserted that due to the high diversity of this virus, the team had to design assays capable of detecting the diversity in Africa due to the absence of commercial assays.

Prof. Markotter affirmed that “Although we have not seen any human outbreaks in South Africa linked to bat spillover, we have detected henipa paramyxo, Marburg (filovirus) and MERS related coronaviruses in bats, all linked to human outbreaks elsewhere in the world”. Through investigating viral excretion at sites with known human/livestock/bat interactions, the first data for South Africa on paramyxo- and corona viral excretion in faecal and urine, linking increase prevalence to bat reproduction cycles was generated.

 Prof. Markotter highlighted that “Knowing what viruses circulate in bats, identifying excretion patterns and potential contact routes with humans and other animals and investigating behavior of people that may increase risk, assist in mitigating potential spillover in the future.”

…due to the high diversity of this virus, the team had to design assays capable of detecting the diversity in Africa due to the absence of commercial assays.

Furthermore, Prof. Markotter emphasised that UP’s investment in biosafety level 3 lab facilities ensures that this work is able to continue in line with regulatory requirements requiring high biocontainment facilities. These facilities are not regularly available in other research environments in South Africa, making the University of Pretoria one of the few groups able to do this type of work.

Despite the detrimental effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on all spheres and sectors, African universities are coalescing their resources to partake in sustainable research ventures that would be beneficial to the continent long after the end of the pandemic.

The discussion undertaken by the panel emphasised the need to garner a conscious understanding of the long-term effects of research ventures by African universities in order to maintain sustainability. The unity displayed in the myriad of collaboration projects across Africa is fundamental to generating globally acclaimed research. Furthermore, the webinar underscored that a broader focus approach should be adopted for the creation of a sustainable existence as opposed to a short term liveable existence.

Visual: Kayla Thomas

SUSANNA ANBU

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