Sunday, 24 January 2021


AS the world continues to reel from the effects of Covid-19, Africa has, however, recorded one of the lowest transmission and fatality rates compared to other regions, which is testament to a largely science-based response that has been deployed by most governments on the continent.

This mitigation and management response has been informed by scientific research, which is led by an elite group of home-grown scientists who have undertaken cutting-edge studies to understand the pandemic in the African context and proffer mitigation and management advice to authorities.

Among this exclusive group is a Zimbabwean-born epidemiologist, who has worked at the vanguard in helping devise means to shore up and marshal Africa’s defence and response to the deadly pandemic.

Professor Francisca Mutapi, one of the foremost immunology and epidemiology experts to emerge from the African continent, is scaling dizzying heights in leading the ground-breaking research, which has been deployed to sharpen the continent’s pandemic response and management efforts.

The unassuming top scientist rose from humble beginnings at the University of Zimbabwe, where she started her journey in academia.

Over a 20-year journey, she has risen to become one of the leading lights involved in steering the continent towards a science-based response to pandemics.

Her trailblazing work in examining the many facets of the lethal coronavirus is helping shape, not only Zimbabwe’s but Africa’s understanding of the novel virus.

She became the first black African female professor at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in the institution’s 430-year history, where she is also co-director of the Global Health Academy.

Prof Mutapi is the deputy director of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Global Health Research Unit Tackling Infections to Benefit Africa (TIBA) — an Africa-led multi-disciplinary research programme empowering African scientists and policy makers to effectively and sustainably tackle Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs). NIHR is a United Kingdom government agency which funds research into health and care, and is the largest national clinical research funder in Europe

Her work over the years has focused on research around tropical diseases such as bilharzia (schistosomiasis) and malaria as well as improving preparedness for epidemics in Africa. She has conducted and led scientific research programmes that have extraordinarily impacted policy, practice and implementation of NTDs control in Africa.

Prof Mutapi has recently directed her expertise in infectious diseases epidemiology and immunology towards helping steer Africa’s response and management of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Recently, together with a team of fellow African experts, they presented findings from pioneering research on Covid-19 variants in Africa during a World Health Organisation Africa press briefing. She told The Sunday Mail last week that hard work, humility and consistency have guided her to rise to the pinnacle of her profession.

“Whether male or female, one just has to work very hard and consistently, seek counsel, act on the advice and treat everyone with kindness and respect,” she said.

“My job entails conducting research, training and mentoring future research leaders, teaching undergraduates and advising and informing strategic plans for global research bodies, funding agencies and global health stakeholders.

“The title of my professorship comes from my research work. I conduct and lead basic scientific research (immunology, molecular biology and epidemiology) on infectious diseases to generate scientific evidence to inform control policies and disease management.”

Her most recent work for the WHO traced the prevalence of new Covid-19 mutations in Africa, which have spawned an aggressive second wave, in the wake of mass gatherings and widespread travelling over the festive season holidays. The research concluded that the continent is now confronted with emerging and highly contagious variants of the virus.

Africa recorded an average of 25 200 cases daily between December 28 and January 1, which was nearly 39 percent higher than the July 2020 two-week peak of 18 104 daily average.

She said the research concluded that most of the early Covid-19 cases recorded on the continent emerged from Europe and not China.

Prof Mutapi spearheaded the first-ever analysis of all publicly available genome sequence data from all African countries that have Covid-19 variants circulating in the respective countries.

Genome sequencing enables scientists to understand the exact genetic make-up carried in a particular DNA segment. It is being used to detect the new Covid-19 variants across the world.

“In Africa, we have a phrase we learnt during the early years of HIV, which is, ‘you need to know your epidemic to know your response’. This is critical for Covid-19,” she said.

“This work showed us that 24 WHO Africa member states had submitted sequences to the public databases by January 12, 2021. These sequences tell us about the history of the Covid-19 pandemic in Africa.

“For instance, we now know that most of our early cases came from Europe, not China. The sequences also tell us which variants are circulating on the continent.”

New virus mutations have been discovered in three SADC countries — South Africa, Zambia and Botswana — placing Zimbabwe, which is yet to conclude its genome sequencing study, at huge risk. The sequencing study will enable Zimbabwe to understand the exact variants circulating in the country.

“It would be informative for Zimbabwe to sequence the Covid-19 viruses circulating in the country,” said Prof Mutapi.

“This would indicate if the variant from South Africa is present in Zimbabwe, as well as identify the other variants circulating.”

She said while there was no evidence suggesting that the new mutations interfere with Polymerase Chain Reaction. Sunday Mail


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