Stellenbosch University (SU) is leading an international consortium that recently received a grant of five million euros (approx. R101 million) from the European Union's flagship research and innovation programme, Horizon Europe, to better diagnose, monitor and clinically manage current and future epidemics in Africa.
This large award will enhance genomic surveillance capacity, strengthen genomic sequencing and provide training in advanced genomic analysis and interpretation in southern and eastern Africa.
“This is a very exciting award as it builds on our African research programme with Kenya and Mozambique, in addition to building on long-term collaborations with Germany and Belgium," comments Prof Tulio de Oliveira, a world-renowned bioinformatician and director of SU's Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI). “We are very proud of this award as the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP) funded five international awards and this project is the only one that is led from Africa," he adds.
The grant, which is supported by the Global Health EDCTP3 Joint Undertaking, was awarded for a project called Genomic Surveillance to control pathogen infections in Africa (GenPath Africa). GenPath Africa will also be an integral part of the Africa CDC Pathogen Genomics Initiative (Africa PGI).
As the name suggests, GenPath Africa's overall goal will be to control pathogen infections in the continent. The consortium will include epidemiologists, clinicians, bioinformaticians, immunologists and virologists to increase the use of genomic epidemiology to address important public health issues such as HIV-1, tuberculosis and antimicrobial resistance in South Africa, Kenya and Mozambique. GenPath Africa will also quickly survey and respond to epidemics that are being amplified by climate change such as Rift Valley Fever. It will also use a One Health approach to conduct early warning testing in wastewater and animal surveillance to detect emerging pathogens. According to the World Health Organisation, One Health is an integrated, collaborative, multisectoral and transdisciplinary approach that aims to sustainably balance and optimise the health of people, animals and ecosystems.
The partners from SU include a collaboration between CERI, four research groups within the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics (Animal TB, South African TB Bioinformatics Initiative, Immunology Research Group, and TB Genomics Research Group) and the Division of Medical Virology. Other members of the consortium are the National Institute of Health of Mozambique, the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya, the Global Health Institute at the University of Antwerp, Belgium and the LINQ Management GmbH in Berlin, Germany.
“Despite the rapid expansion of genomic sequencing capacity and increased genomic surveillance during the Covid-19 pandemic, the global response to SARS-CoV-2 illuminated the barriers that prevent the world from having readily available, reliable and comprehensive genomic data to aid public health decision-making. Specifically, the ability to rapidly analyse and interpret the data for public health impact is severely limited," says De Oliveira.
“We need to plan for future pandemics by expanding genomic surveillance to other pathogens in Africa to be able to quickly detect new emergent epidemics. The GenPath Africa team is well-placed to apply genomic epidemiology to impact on current and emerging epidemics in southern and eastern Africa."
GenPath Africa will advance the EDTCP3 work programme by i) providing researchers and public health professionals with skills in genomic epidemiology to better understand infectious disease epidemiology and drug resistance, ii) strengthening capability in southern and eastern Africa to rapidly respond to current and emerging epidemics, and iii) providing researchers with training to advance their scientific careers in Africa and establish themselves as scientific and public health leaders.
More about the Global Health EDCTP3 JU
The Global Health EDCTP3 Joint Undertaking (GH EDCTP3 JU) builds on the first and second European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP) programmes. This new joint undertaking is a partnership between the EU and the EDCTP Association, whose members are several European and African countries. The partnership will deliver new solutions for reducing the burden of infectious diseases in sub-Saharan Africa and strengthen research capacities to prepare and respond to re-emerging infectious diseases in this region and across the world.
More about the SU research groups
The SU partners in this programme include four research groups within the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics (Animal TB, South African TB Bioinformatics Initiative, Immunology Research Group, and TB Genomics Research Group) and the Division of Medical Virology. These groups are based at the state-of-the-art Biomedical Research Institute (BRMI) in the Faculty of Medical and Health Science (FMHS). In addition, the collaboration includes CERI, which is a trans-disciplinary research programme linking to three faculties of SU, including the School for Data Science and Computational Thinking, the FMHS and the Faculty of Science. Click here for more information about CERI and here about the BMRI.