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UCT professor warns about Africa's science brain drain

Professor Kelly Chibale

Not only are many science graduates in Africa unemployed but the situation is getting worse, fuelling a brain drain to Europe, the UK and North America, warned Professor Kelly Chibale of the University of Cape Town at a ceremony awarding him the SA Chemical Institute gold medal for 2018.

Professor Chibale, founder and director of the Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3D), at the University of Cape Town, has used the opportunities given by his being awarded the Gold Medal for 2018 by the South African Chemical Institute and 2018 Commemorative Fund Lecture from the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene to raise awareness of the critical need to invest in a research & development (R&D) industry that could create a pipeline of jobs for science graduates in Africa.

He said H3D had proved that science creates jobs, but that it needs sustained commitment and investment for this to be replicated across the continent. H3D, Africa’s first drug discovery and development centre, has grown from a staff of five in 2011 to over 60. “Many science graduates in Africa are unemployed and the situation is getting worse. For some time now, this has fuelled the brain drain to Europe, the UK or North America,” said Chibale.

“Continuing to emphasise postgraduate and postdoctoral training without coupling it to the creation of career opportunities will merely serve to worsen unemployment and make science even more unattractive as a career option. It will further worsen the brain drain,” he warned. He said this would ultimately undermine sustainable scientific independence for Africa.

Chibale, who was listed by Fortune magazine as one of its “50 World's Greatest Leaders” earlier this year, has called for more investment from African governments, the private sector, donors and other partners.

“There’s a big opportunity for interaction between the R&D value chain and the manufacturing value chain. Jobs can be created through R&D at different stages of the value chain.” For example, in the pre-clinical discovery phase of the value chain, there are opportunities for companies to be set up locally to offer supply of chemical intermediates, analytical services, contract research and manufacturing services. When a pre-clinical drug development candidate is identified, there are additional opportunities for companies to be set up to scale up on the large-scale manufacture of the active pharmaceutical ingredient for human clinical trials.

H3D is involved in two initiatives to help boost drug discovery and development research and innovation in Africa. One of them is a local pilot project with Walter Sisulu University in the Eastern Cape, aimed at boosting the sustainable training of African scientists within the context of the H3D Transformation Grow Our Own Timber programme targeting historically disadvantaged institutions. The aim of this drug discovery training programme is to build drug discovery capacity at HDIs. The South African Medical Research Council has provided the initial funding for the WSU project and is a partner with H3D in this programme.

H3D is also involved, as the focal point, in the Grand Challenges Africa drug discovery programme to support new drug discovery projects in Africa. H3D, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Medicines for Malaria Venture and the African Academy of Sciences are working together to support new projects by offering grants as well as extensive support to projects involved in drug discovery and development, particularly in malaria and tuberculosis.

Over the past month, Chibale has shared his message at major international platforms, describing how Africa can be a source of health innovation and can lead international efforts to discover new medicines. In addition to delivering the ASTMH Commemorative Fund Lecture at the Society’s 2018 Annual Meeting in New Orleans, Chibale also presented a Spotlight talk at a joint plenary session of the BMGF Grand Challenges annual meeting and Keystone Drug Discovery symposium in Berlin in October to a collective audience of several thousand attendees, many of them influential leaders in their fields.

Working with the former US President Barack Obama Foundation, he has also shared his experiences with emerging leaders across Africa, who are part of the one-year Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa programme. Chibale spoke about his passion for addressing youth unemployment and overcoming obstacles on the road to success.

“In H3D, we have an African-led model that works. It is a tremendous opportunity now to expand this footprint and replicate this model across Africa. Fund entrepreneur research centres like H3D to create more jobs and fund them not just to survive, but to succeed. We need a critical mass of people to sustain this industry into the future,” said Chibale.

“We have the ability to build an African, innovative R&D pharmaceutical industry that not only delivers clinical candidates, but also high-level jobs to science graduates, future project leaders and a critical mass of skilled scientists.”

H3D works mainly in the fields of tuberculosis and malaria and already has a potential drug for malaria in human trials. The drug has the potential to kill the malaria parasite at multiple stages.

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