A man receives a COVID-19 vaccine dose, after the new omicron variant of the coronavirus was detected in November 2021, at a vaccination station in Cape Town, South Africa. Credit: Xabiso Mkhabela/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A group of young scientists in their thirties in Nairobi, Cameroon, Bangalore and Goa are making vaccines, sequencing genomes of viruses, studying microbial resistance and making therapeutics locally as part of a India Africa public health collaboration.

The teams at National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore and Kavi Institute of Clinical Research, College of Health Sciences, University of Nairobi, recently developed a DNA vaccine against dengue as part of this collaboration.

Moses Masika at the Kavi centre says “Africa can use India’s experience with manufacturing health products and offering healthcare at low costs. Many health problems are common to Africa and India.”

The pandemic has sharpened the focus on research on vaccines against viruses. Paul Nayim, a scientist at University of Dschang, in Cameroon says new vaccines are needed. “It is important to get to the point of producing other types such as DNA or RNA vaccines that could be more efficient.” At present, specific vaccines are targeted at specific infectious diseases.

The scientists say DNA based vaccines would be a game changer for India and Africa. They can be designed rapidly, manufactured extensively, are cost-effective, more versatile, thermostable, and don’t require a cold chain, essential features for delivery to resource-limited settings.

Arun Sankaradoss at NCBS and Easwaran Sreekumar at Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology, Thiruvananthapuram, are lead researchers for DNA vaccines. Sankaradoss says, “Trials have established that DNA vaccines are capable of inducing both humoral and cellular responses against a wide range of antigens from pathogens and they have a strong safety profile as DNA plasmids do not replicate or elicit vector-directed immune responses in hosts.”

But funds are always a key challenge. As Nayim says, “As many African countries do not have the capacity to manufacture vaccines against infectious diseases that plague both regions, the collaboration is an opportunity for scientific work between India and Africa on such vaccines.”

In India too, vaccine development competes with other health priorities and the management of health systems. Another factor is inadequate monitoring and supervision. “Regulatory procedures for toxicity studies in India need similar design as other drugs, adding to the cost and time,” says Sankaradoss.

He has mapped a long-term Indo-Africa surveillance and vaccine programme to expand pathogen surveillance and integrate genome implications to develop DNA vaccines against various pathogens or rebuild traditional vaccines on a DNA vaccine platform. “Research collaboration, quick technology transfer, and creating healthcare infrastructure are all areas in focus,” he says.

A meet organised by Indian Council of Medical Research and the Ministry of External Affairs in 2016 gave birth to the collaboration. Professor Sudhir Krishna of NCBS received a three-year grant from Narayana Murthy, co-founder of Infosys. The team includes Prof R Sowdhamini at NCBS and Dr Rahul Roy at the Indian Institute of Science. Their work has focused on capacity building, translational research using sequencing approaches for vaccine design and product development.

The joint research, says Dr Nasim, goes a long way towards global equity in vaccines.

In another research project Meenakshi Iyer, Juma Meshack, along with Masika and others from India sequenced the genomes of 14 suspected N. gonorrhoeae bacterial strains from Nairobi, Kenya to combat antibiotic resistance among pathogens. Working with colleagues from Cameroon led to identifying anticancer extracts in plants that can be used in drugs.

Frank Onyambu is a scientist and co-founder of startup Centre for Molecular Biosciences and Genomics, a clinical diagnostic and research laboratory in Nairobi. Onyambu says it is easy to extrapolate the impact of sustained interactions and joint research between the scientists of both regions to technology transfer and further to business development.

Onyambu runs “one of the few centres in Kenya with the capacity for COVID-19 whole-genome sequencing currently using Oxford Nanopore Technology.” He says that during his training in next-generation sequencing technologies at NCBS Bangalore, he observed a drive among young Indian scientists to contribute to society through enterprise.

This set Onyambu on his own road to enterprise. “It was something I had not considered before visiting Bangalore. Fast forward to 2022, I am now an entrepreneur. My single interaction with Krishna’s group has led to collaborations with Raja Mugasimangalam of Genotypic India, and Varsha Shridhar of Molecular Solutions Care Health LLP.”

Krishna says the Indo African programme could stand out as a strong catalyst for enabling manufacturing. “It will be a key player in enabling vaccine equity, perhaps.”

Uma Ramakrishnan, a molecular ecologist, and head of outreach and development, at NCBS says the collaboration is critically important, as it focuses on capacity building, essential for pandemic preparedness.

In September 2021 the Indian government added private sector laboratories to its SARS CoV-2 Genomic Consortia (Insacog), a network of 28 government laboratories to detect new COVID-19 variants and scale up genomic surveillance in the country.

Onyambu’s laboratory in Kenya is part of the network of genome-sequencing laboratories in Africa. “Before the pandemic, molecular diagnostic laboratories were only found in academic and research facilities. Now we have about 110 COVID-19 PCR labs in the country and the number is increasing every month. The infrastructure established to respond to COVID-19 will help develop a new approach to healthcare where molecular diagnostics are at the centre stage for the very first time in Africa.”