Study Reveals Limited Awareness and Understanding of ongoing Research on Emerging Health Technologies in sub-Saharan Africa
8 November 2021
Author: Rose Oronje Ph.D and Venancious Tuor

A recent study on the landscape and political economy of emerging health technologies in Africa conducted by the Platform for Dialogues and Action on Health Technologies in Africa (Health Tech Platform) revealed various new tools and technologies being developed, tested or piloted on the continent to tackle persistent and emerging health challenges. Some of these tools include:

  • Genome editing: a technique that allows researchers to insert, delete or modify DNA to silence, activate or otherwise modify an organism’s specific genetic characteristic.
  • Artificial intelligence: a health technology that is seen as providing a pathway to improve health services, diagnostics and personalized medicine
  • Synthetic biology: used for the development of novel drugs and vaccines, and genetically engineered organisms/viruses to fight diseases
  • Data science/data analytics: a technology used to track child immunisation in border regions and developing a digital certificate for COVID-19
  • Monoclonal antibodies: used as therapeutic agents for disease treatment
  • Use of drones in health interventions, such as spraying of larvicide for mosquito control

Zeroing-in on malaria, various tools are being developed, tested or piloted on the continent for control and elimination of the disease including:

  • Gene drives: genetic modification of malaria-transmitting mosquitoes to either suppress their population or modify them so that they cannot transmit the parasite
  • Mass drug administration of the Ivermectin drug for humans and animals: when mosquitoes bite people or animals that have taken the drug, they die
  • Attractive toxic sugar baits (ATSBs): oral insecticide that kills mosquitoes
  • Use of drones in spraying larvicide to kill mosquito larvae
  • Sterile insect technology: one of the most environment-friendly insect pest control methods used to sterilise mass-reared insects so that, while they remain sexually competitive, they cannot produce offspring.

The landscape study results revealed limited knowledge and awareness among many stakeholders on these new technologies, and the work going on to develop, test or pilot these technologies. This points to the need for increased efforts to expand conversations around these technologies so as to create awareness and increase understanding of these technologies among policymakers, media, CSOs and the public.

Focusing on the ongoing research on gene drives for Malaria control and elimination, the study found that the research in Burkina Faso, Uganda and Mali is at the initial stage, which means it has many years to go before this technology could be adopted in Africa if proven effective and safe. There are, however, various challenges slowing progress on this research including lack of regulatory framework for this type of research (i.e. releasing genetically modified organisms in the environment), weak capacities on the continent on this technology, weak or lacking legal framework to guide this work in some countries (as is the case in Uganda), and some level of opposition to this technology.

There are, however, various efforts by different actors to address these challenges. Specifically, the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD) is working with countries to develop the regulatory framework needed for guiding the research on gene drives for Malaria control. Groups such as the GeneConvene, the Pan Africa Mosquito Control Association (PAMCA), and the African Biosafety Network, are working to increase awareness and build capacity of researchers on the technology in Africa.

Opposition to the gene drive technology is centred around the lack of evidence on the technology’s effects on humans and the environment. Part of the ongoing research on gene drives is to generate this type of evidence in order to address the concerns.

The landscape found that except for engagement with the communities where the gene drives research is being conducted in study countries, there is little being done to create awareness and understanding among the public and a wider range of stakeholders on the gene drives technology for Malaria control and elimination.

Furthermore, the study raised some questions on issues of equity, power, and justice in the governance of the emerging health technologies being developed or tested on the continent. These issues are further complicated with the limited investments by African governments in the ongoing efforts on emerging health technologies. With all the work on emerging health technologies being funded by external development partners, some stakeholders are weary of what this means for the ownership and use of these technologies in Africa, if these are proven safe and effective.

The results of the landscape study have informed the design of the Health Tech Platform and will continue to shape the implementation of the Platform’s interventions.

The landscape study used a qualitative design that involved a review of documents and interviews with 30 key informants, drawn from: policymaking institutions at both the regional and national level in Sub Saharan Africa, research consortia and network, ethicists, advocacy groups at the regional and global levels, and journalists and science media networks.

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