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Series Of Papers Highlights Challenges With Moving African-Developed Drugs, Technology Forward

“Africa is struggling to turn local discoveries into drugs and other health care inventions,” according to studies published in Science and BMC International Health and Human Rights, Nature News reports (Nordling, 12/12).

The papers, produced by Canada’s McLaughlin-Rotman Center for Global Health (MRC), at the University Health Network and University of Toronto, offer “a broad range of evidence and concrete examples of African innovation to address local health concerns,” according to an MRC press release. “The papers draw on the experiences of authorities, researchers and entrepreneurs in Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda. In addition to efforts involving health products, the experiences of health venture capital funds in African and other developed countries are profiled,” the release states (12/12).

The articles “identify 25 ‘stagnant technologies’ languishing in African health-research institutions,” including “a portable medical-waste incinerator, a dipstick test for the parasitic disease schistosomiasis and several drug candidates extracted from African plants,” Nature News writes.

“What we found in Africa is that there is funding for basic research, but there is nobody taking these findings forward,” said paper co-author Ken Simiyu, a technology commercialization researcher at the University of Toronto, Canada, the news service writes (12/12).

The researchers did, however, “identify some success stories, such as the Tanzanian company A to Z Textiles, which managed to overcome regulatory and procurement hurdles to become one of the world’s largest producers of insecticide-treated bed nets,” as described in an article included in the series, Agence France-Presse writes.

The failure to get home-grown technologies off the ground in Africa “is not entirely financial. It is a more general innovation problem, which involves politics and finance,” explained Simiyu, AFP reports. “African countries dedicate an average of 0.2 to 0.3 percent of GDP to research and development, 10 times less than developed countries,” according to the news service (12/12). “Scientists in Africa have no incentive to commercialize results, and there is scant institutional support for knowledge transfer. In addition, venture capital is scarce, existing regulatory frameworks inhibit innovation and intellectual property protection remains weak,” Nature News writes.

Still, African researchers have benefited from some investment in neglected tropical diseases in recent years, the news service notes. For instance, “[i]n Uganda … health-research spending more than tripled from US$18 million in 2005–06 to US$56m in 2008–09, according a status report published in June this year by the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology,” according to Nature News (12/12).

“Both Simiyu and [McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health Director Peter] Singer hope the extensive collection of papers – what they call the most ‘comprehensive study’ of African health technologies ever completed – can foster new investment capital that is also accompanied by strong business relationship to help these ideas along,” PostMediaNews/Canada.com writes. “As a ‘primary recommendation,’ the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre suggests a series of innovation centres or business incubators be set up to bring scientists and entrepreneurs together; the researchers argue that would help with the financial capital needed, as well as some of the cultural bias the researchers say needs to be overcome,” the news service adds (Husser, 12/12).

Nature News notes the presence of such a center in Rwanda and how such centers are in the works in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The article also includes comments from Marcel Tanner, director of the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute and Umar Bindir, director general of Nigeria’s National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion, who address additional barriers to the production of innovative products in Africa (12/12).

In a preface to the series of studies, “Harvard professor Calestous Juma noted that concern over access to medicines had dominated the health policy debate for years, wrongly assuming that Africa would continue to rely on imports,” AFP adds. “This collection of original papers provides a different prognosis. They reveal an emergent ‘health innovation system’ in Africa,” Juma said (12/12).

“The large firms of the developed world producing drugs, vaccines, diagnostics and other health products are a great resource and partner. But many people will die if we wait for scientists from elsewhere to invent and market the health products Africa needs,” Singer said, according to the MRC release. “Our message to international agencies, donors and African governments: support these enterprises and nurture their potential, because they can make a major contribution to better health in developing countries – and to their own health,” Singer said (12/12).

Report Examines Academic Journal Use Among Researchers In Africa

Although “[e]lectronic access to journals is improving dramatically in eastern and southern Africa … actual use by academics and students is not keeping pace,” according to a study published last month by the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), SciDev.Net reports in an article that highlights several reasons behind the trend.

According to the report, “many postgraduates lack access to, and the skills for working on, computers. … And academics spend little time on research activity because of time and money constraints,” the news service writes. “The report identifies ‘a clear need for better promotion of resources, awareness-raising, and skills development’. And it sees developing libraries and librarians as a key to achieving this,” SciDev.Net writes.

The article quotes Mary Abukutsa, a lecturer at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Kenya; Jonathan Harle, co-author of the ACU report; and Ruth Oniang’o, editor of the African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development (Ogodo/Adhiambo, 12/9).

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