Strengthening Africa’s capacity to deal with COVID-19 and future pandemics

March 30, 2022

Reliable epidemiological data is often unavailable or severely limited in resource-limited settings in sub-Saharan Africa, and this knowledge gap is further aggravated by a shortage of skilled personnel in epidemiology and biostatistics to efficiently monitor, analyse and interpret these data to inform policy and decision making. This has been made even more apparent since the outbreak of COVID-19 in December 2019 and its rapid spread across the world. The Pandemic has tested the strength and capacity of health systems in many countries, but especially those in low and middle income countries which were already strained in terms of human resources, facilities and funding. As the COVID-19 virus spread across the African continent, many countries were hard-pressed to source testing kits, laboratories, trained personnel, personal protective equipment, and other necessities required to manage the disease.

While these were more immediate needs, larger questions loomed especially as the Virus evolved: Will there be another strain? What would that mean in terms of severity of symptoms, caseloads and mortality? When would the next wave be? How ready are we? How long will this Pandemic last?

For a continent that bears 25% of the world’s disease burden, Africa only contributes 2% to global research output. It is for this reason that training programs are needed in order to develop a cohort of researchers across sub-Saharan Africa which can work in collaboration with regional and national ministries of health, as well as with international organisations such as the World Health Organisation and Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), to collectively conduct routine surveillance, conduct public health research for timely and accurate responses to disease outbreaks.

It is for this reason that the African Population and Health Research Center in partnership with Lund University, Amref International University (AMIU) and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology (JOOUST) established the Capacity Development of Applied Epidemiologists in Eastern Africa (CDAE) fellowship. The 36-month program was developed with the support of the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP) and Africa CDC, with the aim of creating a well-connected cohort of highly competent professionals with Masters’ degree qualifications in epidemiology and/or biostatistics. CDAE also seeks to strengthen the research and policy engagement capacity of the fellows through a mentored and practical learning program, and improve training, research, supervision capacity within the participating institutions. The goal of this is for the effective delivery and support of academic and professional programs in epidemiology and biostatistics.

This work builds on EDCTP’s previous support of disease outbreak preparedness and response in countries across sub-Saharan Africa. It is also part of APHRC’s mandate on research capacity strengthening by maintaining a wellspring of early career African researchers. During the period of the fellowship, aside from their routine school work, participants are required to attend Joint Seminars which will cover various topics including research methodologies, disease surveillance, statistics, and advocacy.

It is hoped that this cohort is the first of many supported by CDAE to contribute to the creation of a critical mass of epidemiologists and biostatisticians and institutional research capacity in sub-Saharan Africa.