Africa’s Renewed Hope for Drug Discovery and Health Innovation


Kelly Chibale, founder of the H3D Centre at the University of Cape Town and chairman & CEO of the H3D Foundation, outlines the rationale behind the establishment of these institutions, the vital importance of health innovation in and for Africa, the potential impact of a new partnership with global pharma trade association the IFPMA, and the long road still to travel towards African self-sufficiency.


Unlike counterparts in the global North, research scientists based in Africa who are involved in health innovation often find themselves having to prove their expertise on multiple occasions and fronts, both within and outside the continent.


This not only poses a significant challenge to overcome but also limits the success of African-based researchers and scientists who are making ground-breaking discoveries, in terms of receiving the necessary peer acknowledgment and recognition. It also leads to restraining Africa’s capabilities in its own health innovation – effectively bringing medical interventions closer to the population – and contributes to the brain drain from the continent.


The Centre aims to discover and develop innovative, lifesaving medicines for communicable diseases that predominantly affect African patients


Upon making this realization and with the mindset of changing this narrative, I founded the Holistic Drug Discovery and Development (H3D) Centre at the University of Cape Town in 2010. H3D is an integrated drug discovery platform and the first of its kind in Africa. The Centre aims to discover and develop innovative, lifesaving medicines for communicable diseases that predominantly affect African patients. Also, it provides a platform to build Africa-specific models to contribute to improving treatment outcomes in African patients while educating African scientists in drug discovery and related sciences.


With time, it became apparent that the needs of the continent were beyond the Centre’s abilities. In 2019, I went on to establish the H3D Foundation to complement the work of the H3D Center in terms of capacity development aimed at unlocking the potential for sustainable drug discovery and development activities across Africa. While H3D’s primary focus is its drug discovery platforms, the H3D Foundation seeks to renew and expand the Centre’s capacity-building programs and outreach, developing new initiatives to fill critical skills gaps for laboratory and clinical activities, and strengthen innovation and access to therapeutics in the region.


The H3D Foundation aims to secure the future-facing skills that Africa will need to become a more self-reliant and globally engaged player in relevant health innovations and pharmaceutical research and development (R&D). The foundation is fast becoming a reliable and credible voice for evidence-based global health views, countering misinformation about research and science in Africa.


Last September, H3D Foundation partnered with the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA) – a trade association that represents the research-based pharmaceutical companies and associations across the globe. The three-year partnership aims to strengthen capacity for health innovation in Africa and will see the organizations pool resources towards capacity strengthening for drug discovery and development in Africa by scaling existing H3D-led initiatives and identifying new development opportunities for young and mid-career scientists in the region.


With the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic in the backdrop, this collaboration could not have been established at a better time. The outbreak has brought to light the urgent need to bolster Africa’s public health capacity/infrastructure, including its drug innovation capabilities, to be able to address future health emergencies.


Consider this, Africa is still recording low vaccination rates and the vaccine shipments to Africa must rise by over seven times, from around 20 million every month to 150 million each month on average if we are to achieve a full vaccination rate of 70 percent of the continent by September 2022. This speaks volumes about Africa’s need for health innovation and the urgency of ceasing to be reliant on external resources and support.


I strongly believe that the H3D Foundation-IFPMA partnership will be instrumental in accelerating efforts to increase Africa’s access to global medical innovations


Further, the pandemic has made it clear that the role of African scientists has been critical in strengthening mechanisms for identifying and prioritizing relevant mutations, such as in South Africa’s recent discovery of the Omicron variant. Recognizing the sudden and fast spread of COVID-19, local researchers were quick and leading in early detection.


I strongly believe that the H3D Foundation-IFPMA partnership will be instrumental in accelerating efforts to increase Africa’s access to global medical innovations. The H3D Foundation and IFPMA collaboration will also provide an opportunity for technology and innovation transfer for the development of drugs and other medical interventions as Africa now has the opening to capitalize on the capacity of IFPMA’s members. At the same time, and I reiterate, we, as a continent, must establish self-sufficiency, which can in part be achieved through identifying and nurturing local scientific talent.


Moreover, we need to ensure that regulatory frameworks and systems that enable innovation are strengthened to encourage in-country production of crucial medicines. Ultimately, this will also be central in stopping the brain drain that has seen one out of every three skilled medical professionals leave Africa to work elsewhere. That loss of talent, in turn, hampers R&D because, without scientific research, there can be no progress and the predicament of African researchers and scientists will remain the same for the foreseeable future.

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