By Mary Hearty
Life sciences research in the African region has evolved over the years, and is currently vibrant and expanding, with increasing output and quality.
However, challenges remain as most countries lack or have limited policies, training, appropriate health technologies and resources, hence underlining the need to strengthen biorisk management in the continent.
This is because the same scientific information and technologies that generate potential benefits for health and society could also accidentally or deliberately be misused and potentially cause harm to humans, animals, plants and the environment, the World Health Organization (WHO) says.
Speaking during an ongoing two-day workshop organized by the WHO and partners to operationalize the Global Guidance Framework for the Responsible Use of Life Sciences, Dr. Jaures Arnaud, Biosafety and Biosecurity Technical Officer of the Africa Centre for Disease Control (Africa CDC), in his presentation noted that the global health security (GHS) index shows that 66% of the African Union (AU) Member States do not have biosafety policies, almost 81% do not have biosecurity, while none of the countries have general oversight for dual-use (for good and bad reasons) research of concern.
Similarly, he stated that an analysis done by WHO emphasized that biosecurity was one of the weak points where the Member States scored as low as only 32% on average.
According to Dr. Joseph Okeibunor, Lead Research, Development and Innovation team at WHO, Africa, through the guidelines, they are trying to mitigate mistakes in life sciences research, where for instance, people use biological elements or pathogens for the purpose of war or by accident where these things are released out of error.
“We are also trying to raise consciousness about the risk of not taking proper protective guidance,” he added.
Despite some countries already having their own guidelines, the WHO framework aims to standardize all countries globally in order to have a unified principle.
Most countries in Africa lack these guidelines and even those that have, the scope is limited, Dr. Okeibunor said.
Notably, prior to the development of this global framework, he said, WHO has been releasing policy papers to countries, noting that it is the continuous interaction with these countries that necessitated the need for a standard guideline.
Dr. Peter Borus, WHO Laboratory Scientist based in Kenya, who represented Abdourahmane Diallo, WHO representative at Kenya’s country office said the implementation of the Global guidance framework for the responsible use of the life sciences in the African region, will contribute to the strengthening of health research governance and biosafety and biosecurity regimes and foster ethics and research integrity.
Noting how critical governance of health research is in improving health and building sustainable capacity, Dr. Borus said the governance of bio-risks is an issue that should engage all countries, although countries will have different contexts, needs and starting points.
The regional workshop marked the starting point for the implementation of the activities at regional and national levels as the participants explored concrete and sustainable ways to operationalize the specific elements of the framework.
Some of the elements of the framework include developing a legal framework for biosafety and biosecurity, establishing a technical working group, and a sustainable regional training and certification program.
The workshop brought together high-level and technical multidisciplinary participants from 11 countries, partners representing humans, veterinary, agriculture, and environmental sectors as well as the entire region.