Building a sustainable health innovation ecosystem

Health-related innovation is particularly resource-intensive, says the writer. Picture: Bokskapet/Pixabay

Health-related innovation is particularly resource-intensive, says the writer. Picture: Bokskapet/Pixabay

Published Jun 11, 2022


By Kelly Chibale

For decades, the African continent has lagged the Global North in innovative pharmaceutical research and development (R&D), relying on innovations from outside to keep its population healthy.

For example, the continent produces only 1% of all vaccines administered to its population, and 70-90% of medicines consumed in the region are pharmaceutical imports. This is unsustainable and unacceptable.

In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, nobody could fault politicians of richer countries for wanting to vaccinate their own citizens first. But this “homeland first” approach was a painful wake-up call and revealed that Africa was without a continent-wide approach of its own.

Regional production of vaccines and pharmaceuticals is not a luxury. It is a matter of urgent necessity and a smart investment in regional health security. Innovation is a key contributor to sustainable development and improving health outcomes for people around the world.

Africa must now tap local innovators to chart home-grown solutions. Africa is home to seven of the world’s fastest-growing economies, and many countries in the region have rapidly growing youth populations.

That makes the continent fertile ground for innovative market-based solutions. Already, successful innovations spearheaded by young people include computer-aided detection of tuberculosis in Gambia, South Africa and Zambia, and a smartphone-powered, cloud-enabled portable electrocardiograph used in Malawi and Uganda.

Yet notwithstanding this promise, per head, African countries account for only around 0.01% of global investment in innovation. In addition to woefully lagging investment, obstacles in most African countries include a lack of strong institutions, skilled human capital, appropriate infrastructure, access to advanced technology, and market and business experience that facilitate the scaling of innovations.

Health-related innovation is particularly resource-intensive. Despite annual growth in venture capital investments on the continent, innovators here are less likely to be funded.

To address these challenges, the Holistic Drug Discovery and Development (H3D) Centre at the University of Cape Town, is employing a bottomup approach based on the delivery of results from a network of local and international partners – from the smallest labs at South African universities to major players such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. How can digital technologies contribute to sustainable attainment of universal health coverage in Africa? African start-ups raised $1.34 billion in 2019.

Silicon Valley has deep pockets for African start-ups – if you’re not African. The South African government, meanwhile, is providing matching funding for qualifying approved projects.

Our model of collaboration is already making a difference. At the new Johnson and Johnson Satellite Centre for Global Health Discovery, local innovators are driving research and development critical to preparing for the next pandemic.

Our approach is also being scaled across the continent through the Grand Challenges Africa Drug Discovery Program. African governments have a vital role to play. They can provide investment incentives for established R&D bio-pharmaceutical companies. They can set regulatory frameworks to enhance quality control and harmonise procurement.

And they can invest in infrastructure for lastmile delivery of innovative healthcare solutions to the people who need them. Such policies, in combination with a system for smooth technology transfer from labs to commercial development, can create a thriving African ecosystem for innovation – just what healthcare on the continent needs.

Lamenting the status quo in terms of low investment in R&D gets us nowhere. Instead, we must recognise African strengths and play to our success stories. It is time to debunk the myth that Africa cannot lead international efforts to innovate in the pharmaceutical space and discover drugs.

* Chibale is a professor of organic chemistry, the Neville Isdell Chair in African-centric Drug Discovery and Development, and CEO and Chairman of the H3D Foundation