The University of Pretoria's (UP) first Community of Practice (CoP) focusing on eliminating malaria, hosted in the UP Institute for Sustainable Malaria Control (UP ISMC), has been renewed for a second round of funding. Through the CoP initiative, the National Research Foundation (NRF) provides “vehicles to enable the implementation of integrated trans- and multidisciplinary solutions to address societal challenges and to ultimately bring change to the lives of South Africans through evidence-based research findings”.
Malaria elimination remains a challenge due to the complexities of the disease. South Africa aimed to eliminate malaria by 2018, but experienced a malaria outbreak during the 2017/2018 malaria season, where more than 22 000 cases were reported. South Africa then had to reassess its malaria elimination strategies, which at that point focused mainly on vector control and early diagnosis and treatment. South Africa rolled out its 2023 National Malaria Elimination Strategic Plan on 30 July 2019, clearly emphasising coordination of efforts using innovative new tools and strategies to ensure that the country achieves a malaria-free status.
South Africa is pioneering activities within the value chain of drug discovery, drug development and clinical testing of medicines. The CoP in Evaluating Malaria Control Interventions is the leading national network in anti-malarial drug discovery providing research-driven, innovative health solutions and interventions for eliminating malaria. Ultimately, the CoP will inform and guide policy development, and translate research outputs into tangible outcomes that will address South African, and African, socioeconomic challenges associated with malaria.
The CoP collaborators at the first stakeholder meeting in March 2018
The CoP draws from the expertise of five DST/NRF South African Research Chairs (SARChI) from four top research-intensive universities in the country. The CoP looks at intervention strategies for malaria elimination, including the discovery of novel drug leads (Professor Kelly Chibale, University of Cape Town, Chair in Drug Discovery) used with optimised delivery systems (Professor Bert Klumperman, Stellenbosch University, Chair in Advanced Macromolecular Architectures) against both the malaria parasite (Professor Lyn-Marie Birkholtz, UP, Chair in Sustainable Malaria Control) and mosquito vectors (Professor Lizette Koekemoer, University of the Witwatersrand, Chair in Medical Entomology and Vector Control), and modelled within a malaria elimination setting (Professor Jacek Banasiak, UP, Chair in Mathematical Models and Methods in Biosciences and Bioengineering). The CoP has been expanded to now also include Professor Jacky Snoep (Stellenbosch University, Chair in Mechanistic Modelling of Health and Epidemiology). Each SARChI Chair is a key component in the malaria drug discovery value chain. Professor Birkholtz from the Department of Biochemistry, Genetics and Microbiology at UP is the lead PI of the CoP.
The new knowledge generated by the CoP members, including more than 57 publications in high-impact international journals and numerous presentations at international conferences, has given South Africa an international edge. These outputs translate into operational activities, ultimately guiding policy on malaria elimination strategies. Moreover, with an ethos to enthuse shared knowledge generation and cooperation, the CoP has invested heavily in capacity development, with four research scientists and five postdoctoral fellowships appointed in the programme. In addition, two female scientists were appointed to fill the roles of a senior researcher and a project manager, respectively, at UP.
The interdisciplinary and integrated nature of the CoP has opened up new positions for a new generation of South African scientists. More than forty postgraduate students are currently being trained at the four universities in team-based interdisciplinary drug discovery research. In terms of South Africa's transformation vision, more than 57% of the CoP’s students have been women, and more than 60% are from previously disadvantaged groups across the four universities. The CoP also initiated research collaborations and student training programmes with the University of Venda and Fort Hare University, both historically disadvantaged universities.
The CoP collaborators at the symposium and stakeholder meeting that took place at Future Africa in November 2019
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has urged endemic malaria countries to continue with their malaria services and programmes despite the COVID-19 crisis, while the Global Fund reported that the pandemic is disrupting service delivery to about three-quarters of HIV, TB and malaria programmes. Delays in the production and supply of some malaria commodities and an increase in the costs of all malaria-related supplies remains the biggest challenge.
The renewal of the CoP is a major victory for efforts against malaria during the current global economic uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Obtaining funding for research has become more challenging in recent years and now with the pandemic it will become even more of a challenge. The expected long-term economic recession will most likely have a larger impact on research funding, over a much longer time than expected.