In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, universities across the globe are meeting the challenge and playing an enormous role in the response. Learning from this experience will help to ensure that the expertise and unique role of the academic community are fostered for tomorrow’s public health needs.
Universities - especially those in Africa and other resource-constrained settings - have a multifaceted responsibility in public health preparedness and response.
First, knowledge generation starts in our higher education institutions. Through laboratory science and field research, universities have identified effective therapeutics for Covid-19, provided current and projected case numbers, conducted genomic sequencing and begun to understand the condition of ‘long Covid’, among other achievements.
The first case of Covid-19 in Nigeria was diagnosed by the college of medicine at the University of Lagos.
In addition, the first SARS-CoV-2 genome sequence in Africa was reported as a collaboration between the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research and the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases based at Redeemer’s University in Ede, Nigeria. Redeemer’s University has also provided training on SARS-CoV-2 sequencing to other Africa Union member states.
As an example of universities’ capacity for rapid information generation and dissemination, the Africa Research, Implementation, Science and Education (ARISE) Network – a network of over a dozen training and research institutions across Africa – has provided valuable information on disruptions to the food system during Covid-19 as well as barriers to healthcare access during the pandemic, among other issues.
Policy briefs produced by ARISE Network institutions have identified options for mitigating Covid-related challenges in their respective countries. Importantly, universities have the capacity and expertise and are poised to bring a multidisciplinary approach to a problem that transcends any single field of study.
The current pandemic has required economics, business, artificial intelligence, communication and community engagement in addition to medical and public health expertise.
Universities occupy a unique niche due to their ability to bring together experts from across fields and disciplines to rapidly produce and disseminate new knowledge.
Second, the scientists and public health professionals guiding the Covid-19 response today and those who will respond to the world’s next pandemic are trained by our universities. The expertise nurtured in academic settings is applied within our public health entities, health-care systems and industries.
The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) and the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership are launching a new training programme on disease outbreak and epidemic response for highly skilled epidemiologists and bio-statisticians in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Graduates of the programme will enhance the capacity of the national public health institutes in infectious disease surveillance, monitoring and response. Similarly, the Africa Academy for Public Health and the University of Ibadan Research Foundation, both unique public-private-academic partnerships, provide platforms to foster collaboration between African institutions and support training programmes to enhance public health competencies among public and private sector leaders.
African universities have demonstrated incredible innovation and creativity in learning as educational approaches have shifted to virtual and hybrid environments. The creation of virtual journal clubs, for example, has provided continuity for knowledge sharing and dissemination among scholars and clinician scientists. Greater investment is needed to harness available technology and advance hybrid training platforms.
Universities will ensure that the next generation of leaders has the skills to detect and respond to outbreaks, address social-related health needs, respond to climate change and promote health and well-being.
Third, collaborations between universities and national public health institutes (NPHIs) have facilitated much of the Covid-19 response. University students and staff have supported surveillance measures, contact tracing, data collection and interpretation of data in support of public entities. For example, the University of Ibadan has partnered with the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to support health services at busy ports of entry.
Postgraduate students have been deployed to screen international travellers, conduct risk communication with passengers and monitor persons of interest, while faculty have trained rapid response teams at sub-national levels.
In addition, Field Epidemiology Training Programmes (FETPs) are led by NPHIs with collaboration from universities. For example, the Nigeria FETP is led by NCDC and was established with support from Ahmadu Bello University and the University of Ibadan.
Partnerships with NPHIs could be further strengthened: many providing technical support during the pandemic have no public sector experience, while many in the public sector have no formal public health training.
Fourth, in Africa as across the world, the public has looked to its universities for truthful information during the pandemic. Universities play a crucial role in providing a trusted source of factual information to communities.
Importantly, institutions such as the University of Ibadan, founded in 1948, have been around for decades, evolving with local and national government administrations.
They are embedded in local communities and have a mandate to support local health priorities. Therefore, information that comes from known and trusted university staff can have a meaningful impact on the public’s health behaviour.
Experts from the college of medicine, the faculty of public health and the department of statistics at the University of Ibadan are leading governmental committees and programmes at federal and state levels, helping to drive the agenda for Covid-19 in Nigeria.
In addition, universities provide actionable data on vaccine hesitancy. The Vaccine Confidence Project, led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is a collaboration between interdisciplinary researchers that identifies public confidence in vaccines – from polio to Covid-19 – and works to address barriers to vaccine uptake.
University partnerships with various foundations and global health partners serve to advance these four critical functions. Previously established partnerships with direct engagement of African institutions and long-term global investments in research and capacity building are paying significant dividends in efforts to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19.