Build capacities of Health Research Centres to fight epidemics

BY: Zadok Kwame Gyesi
Some lab scientists at the Kintampo Health Research Centre explaining a point to this reporter
Some lab scientists at the Kintampo Health Research Centre explaining a point to this reporter

Living in a world where diseases, particularly infectious diseases have no respect for national, regional and continental boundaries require preparedness by any nation that prioritises the health of its citizens.

This is why health research centres have become critical tools for healthcare interventions in many nations across the world. Health research centres help build the capacities of nations to detect, monitor, prevent and deploy effective health response quickly for any disease outbreaks.

Clinical research is a branch of healthcare science that determines the safety and effectiveness of medications, devices, diagnostic products and treatment regimens intended for human use.

Research works that are conducted by health research centres help to influence public health policies. They are critical tools that enable countries to respond to public health threats quickly.

For instance, when COVID-19 broke out in Ghana, the country’s COVID-19 pandemic response was largely centered on two foreign-funded medical research centres—the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research (NMIMR/Noguchi) and the Kumasi Centre for Collaborative Research (KCCR). The two popular research centres are mainly funded by the Japanese and German governments respectively.

Ghana as a country has a number of health research centres aside from Noguchi and KCCR. Mention can be made of the Navrongo Health Research Centre (NHRC); Kintampo Health Research Centre (KHRC), Dodowa Health Research Centre (DHRC), and Agogo Health Research Centre (AHRC). Many of these health research centres are not well resourced to enable them carry out their mandate—they lack infrastructure, logistics and needed human resource.

The Director of the KHRC, Dr. Kwaku Poku Asante, believes that investing in clinical research will go a long way to adequately prepare the country ahead of epidemics.

For him, investing in clinical research would enable Ghanaian scientists and researchers to find solutions to existing and emerging health problems that remain threat to public health in the country.

He is of the view that looking at the critical location of Ghana where many people transit through its borders, the country was more susceptible to diseases, hence the need to build the capacities of its health research centres in order to enable the country to detect such diseases that could lead to epidemics early.

Dr. Poku Asante stressed that epidemics do not give warning signs before they strike and that once systems are built to detect such epidemics, it would help the country to forestall such diseases when they break out.

For him, epidemic preparedness was key to protecting human lives.

He said clinical research played a key role in ensuring effective and efficient healthcare delivery practices in any country.

He further called on the government and other relevant stakeholders to help develop the needed human resource to help advance the cause of health research in the country.

Dr. Poku Asante said Ghana needed to develop the necessary competencies of its scientists and researchers to enable them achieve the purposes for which the various health research centres were built.

For him, countries that had advanced their healthcare systems invested heavily in clinical research, and he explains that clinical health research enables scientists and researchers to come out with groundbreaking discoveries and early detective systems that enable public health workers to address diseases and epidemics on time.

“In the past, we received vaccines or medication tested elsewhere and registered by our regulatory authorities for use by the public. But it is time for us to be involved in clinical research to find solutions to our health challenges,” he remarked.

Dr. Poku Asante explained for instance that the KHRC has in the past focused on infectious diseases, including malaria, meningitis, and diarrhea which have influenced the adoption of key medicines by the Ghana Health Service.

The Head of Clinical Science Department of the Navrongo Health Research Centre (NHRC), Dr. Nana Akosua Ansah agrees with Dr. Poku Asante on the need to invest in clinical research and build capacities of research centres and scientists and researchers.

She offers the hope the NHRC was in a position to lead Ghana's agenda of developing her own vaccines locally, if given the needed resources and support.

She said the NHRC only needed more support and commitment from the government to position itself to evaluate vaccines which will be produced in the country through the president’s initiative of manufacturing vaccines in Ghana.

Dr. Akosua Ansah however, was quick to add that there was the need to put in more efforts to build human capacity in the areas of clinical research.

For her, the Centre had conducted many clinical trials and had gathered enough experience and competencies to go into all phases of vaccines trials if given the needed supports.

"We have developed expertise and competence to run vaccine trials from Phase One—first in-human trials, to Phase Four, the post market surveillance," she explained.

“From our experience from COVID-19, we can see that it is important to build our capacity as a country to conduct clinical trials. It would benefit not only the general population, but the growth of scientific research in the country,” she observed.

“As for vaccines, we would always have them because for viruses, it is difficult to get drugs to fight against viruses,” Dr. Akosua Ansah noted, explaining that when fighting viruses, it is only the body’s immune system that can be primed to fight against viral diseases.

For her, as many infectious diseases continue to emerge, there was the need to build the capacities of health research centres, scientists and researchers to help support the country’s epidemic emergency response systems.

In an article titled: “Why Africa needs to invest in health research” authored by Dr. Alphonsus Neba and Prof. Gordon Awandare, published on July 5, 2017, they say African governments need to close the gap of allowing her scientists and researchers leaving for greener pastures abroad by investing in the creation of conducive environments for scientists to thrive to ensure much more return or remain on the continent to research on its health priorities.

According to the authors, investing in research to address diseases, which will have a huge economic burden on Africa, will ensure that it sustains the continent’s growth.

For them (the authors), Africa needs to invest in health research to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), arguing that by 2015, most countries had missed health-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) because they had not adequately invested in interventions to address the health challenges.

According to Dr. Neba and Prof. Awandare, African countries will continue to face challenges in its health sector if they fail to fulfil commitments made in Bamako in 2008, to spend two per cent of health budgets on research.

For them, many Ghanaian and African scientists and researchers had left the continent to other parts of the world due to lack of opportunities and resources to work with.

For Dr. Neba and Prof. Awandare, building and resourcing health research centres in the country would encourage many Ghanaian scientists and researchers to remain in country and contribute to the development of the country’s health sector, particularly when it comes to dealing with epidemics and infectious diseases.

It is absolutely critical that we prepare for the possibility of even deadlier epidemics and pandemics. However, epidemic preparedness financing should form a core part of our various emergency preparation efforts as a country, as advocated by SEND-Ghana and Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI).