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Covid-19 and research for development

The pandemic brings both reasons for hope and fear

“The crisis has revealed quite a lot,” says Judy Omumbo. “There was lots of pessimism on how Africa was going to manage: ‘When this hits the poor communities on the continent, everybody’s going to be dying in droves.’ But we’ve not seen that. [Africans are] able to launch a response; we’re able to mobilise governments; we’re able to mobilise ministries of health; and we’re able to mobilise researchers.”

The coronavirus pandemic is far from over, and there may be setbacks still to come. Even so, the words of Omumbo, programme manager at the African Academy of Sciences, are well supported by the successful public health response so far of many African nations.

Omumbo was speaking at an online webinar on Covid-19 organised by SOAS University of London. While the webinar’s remit was global, the predominance of speakers from or with experience of working in Africa meant the focus inevitably fell there.

As Omumbo points out, African scientists have been crucial to the global scientific response to the crisis. She detailed how African researchers and innovators had been quick to develop affordable ventilators and test kits, and that African genomics labs had also been quick off the mark. The first two coronavirus sequences from the African continent were published by labs in Ede, Nigeria, and Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, in early March.

“The days when there was no research capacity in Africa are over,” Omumbo said.

For both Omumbo and Kevin Marsh, a professor of tropical medicine at the University of Oxford who has spent much of his career working with African research institutes, the African research response to the pandemic has been a wake-up call: a signal that African researchers should not only be leading on ambitious projects but also be setting their agendas and defining what research is undertaken in the first place. 

External funding

Unfortunately, whether or not this happens is not in the hands of African researchers. The continent’s dependence on external research funding continues to be a sticking point. 

Will international funders overhaul how their calls are structured to take Africa’s enhanced research prowess into account? Maybe not immediately, if the response of Robert Felstead, head of Global Challenges Research Fund challenges at UK Research and Innovation, is anything to go by. Felstead was keen to point out that the “direction of travel” for GCRF-supported calls was that they could be led by researchers in partner countries, even if such calls were in the minority.

But Felstead’s concerns were more immediate. He said the GCRF had prioritised an “agile response to emergencies” but the nature of this particular emergency was making that difficult to fulfil.

Ongoing discussions with UK government departments and partner country organisations meant UKRI was “not short of ideas” on how the fund might respond with targeted calls, Felstead said, but there are considerable practical concerns in how to implement them.

Pandemic impacts

Earlier, Marsh had talked about how “the rest of the development research agenda does not go away” as coronavirus raises its head. “Malaria or HIV won’t become less important; adolescent health, sexual and reproductive health, maternal mortality…none of these things will be less important. But there is a real danger that we’ll direct funding away from them.” But Felstead reassured researchers that the GCRF would not make that mistake: “You do not want to throw the whole development agenda out of the window because of one crisis, no matter how bad one crisis is.”

Accordingly, a priority for those working with the GCRF is to ensure that projects meet their objectives as well as possible, given the circumstances, he said. Felstead’s advice to all those working on GCRF-sponsored projects was to do their utmost to complete them. The funder will consider extending projects when the end date nears.

While his words may offer reassurance, he said that the funding allocated to the GCRF was “part of the international development budget, which is tied to the economic performance of the UK”.

The implication is clear: if the UK and other countries in the global north are heading towards deep recessions, funding of research in the global south will be affected. The impact this will have on Africa’s burgeoning research capacity, of which Omumbo and Marsh spoke so encouragingly, remains to be seen. 

James Brooks is assistant editor for Funding Insight

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com