Improving Southern Africa’s ability to detect the next pandemic

Posted on May 15, 2022

The Southern Africa Bat Research Network (SABRENet), led by Professor Wanda Markotter, Director of the Centre for Viral Zoonoses and NRF-DSI South African Research Chair in Infectious Diseases of Animals (Zoonoses) presented a Southern African workshop: One Health coronavirus biosurveillance towards prevention, preparedness and response at the Future Africa Institute at the University of Pretoria from 28 to 30 April 2022.

Several funding and collaborative partners including the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) of the USA, the United Kingdom International Coronavirus Network (UK-ICN), University of Eswatini, and EcoHealth Alliance joined forces with the Biosurveillance and Ecology of Emerging Zoonoses (BEEZ) research team from University of Pretoria Centre for Viral Zoonoses (UP CVZ) to host this workshop.

It attracted delegates from 12 countries across the world with southern African delegates attending in person from Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Eswatini, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania,  Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Delegates in working group sessions at Future Africa discussing country specific biosurveillance plans. (Image: Tauya Muvengi)

The workshop was opened by Prof Markotter who also introduced the Southern Africa Bat Research Network (SABRENet).

"This is a network that brings together southern African researchers in collaboration with global partners focused on bat research using a transdisciplinary One Health approach. It includes surveillance for potential zoonotic viruses in bats and other wildlife, livestock, companion animals, and humans." She said

As co-chair of the One Health High Level Expert Panel (OHHLEP) that has emphasised the importance of including and mobilising multiple sectors of society in the latest definition of One Health, Prof Markotter further stated:

"Equally important is understanding drivers of potential spillover including human behaviour. Partnerships with communities, governments, and policymakers are essential as well as education and communication of results and risk."

"Outputs of these projects include information on viral presence and risk whilst broadly producing data important for conservation and mitigation strategies."

Following the opening remarks, online presentations were given by Professor James Wood (University of Cambridge, UK), who shared the importance of wildlife surveillance, and Professor Jonathan Epstein (Vice-president, EcoHealth Alliance-USA), who gave insight on the considerations for the planning of surveillance programmes. Presentations from early career researchers dominated the programme, with knowledge sharing on various topics including current knowledge on bat-borne viruses, the influence of land-use on spillover opportunities, field capture methods, field sampling and laboratory protocols, biosafety and biosecurity considerations, data analysis, and community engagement. Further knowledge on the importance of bat taxonomy was given by Professor Ara Monadjem from the University of Eswatini. Attending delegates from EcoHealth Alliance (USA) presented on the importance of collaborative networks and research tools for human risk behaviour studies.

Working group sessions tasked delegates with drafting a country specific biosurveillance plan. Each of the delegates identified gaps and opportunities in skills, infrastructural capacity, expertise, and collaborative channels. The knowledge generated and shared in the workshop will assist in future planning to prevent, prepare and respond to future emerging diseases but also current neglected diseases. The UP CVZ will play a leading role in collaborating with other countries to enhance scientific knowledge, build capacity, share resources and knowledge, and engage with involved communities. 

Delegates attending the Southern African workshop: One Health coronavirus biosurveillance towards prevention, preparedness and response at Future Africa Institute. (Image: Low de Vries)

- Author Tlaishego Nkoana
Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

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