As COVID-19 has slipped down the news agenda in recent months, it may be tempting to think that the worst is now behind us and that we can all put our feet up and relax again.
As an important new book amply demonstrates, however, doing so would be a huge mistake.
On 6 May 2022, CVD-Mali Director-general, Professor Samba Sow, was delighted to join Bill Gates at the Paris launch of his latest book, How to Prevent the Next Pandemic.
The book is a call for a robust and fully functional global health management initiative, to ensure that we are not caught unawares when the next pandemic hits us.
Gather strength in peace time
Mr Gates proposes that a new “Global Epidemic Response and Mobilization” initiative be set up, to ensure that we do all that we can to start those preparations now.
Now is absolutely the time to ensure that we have proper surveillance systems, to cover the entire globe and capture the early signals not only of new COVID-19 variants but also of the next potentially even more deadly pandemic.
Here at CVD-Mali, vaccine development is our bread and butter and we welcome every opportunity, and World Immunization Week in particular, to shine a light on the amazing, life-changing power and potential of vaccines and vaccination.
In all our work, over the course of 20 years trialling, developing, and introducing vaccines into public policy for the Malian population, we keep coming back to a few core principles in relation to vaccines.
The first, and by far the most important, is that vaccines work. As the WHO says,
Vaccines have been indiscriminately saving lives since 1796. The first Smallpox immunization was a fight back against disease. For the first time, it gave everyone a chance. And hundreds of vaccines later, across two and a quarter centuries, billions of people have lived longer lives.
Closely related to that point, however, is the fact that vaccines can only work if they are administered to people and, as we have seen with COVID-19 vaccines, getting doses into people’s arms can be a complicated process.
Some complications arise from people’s reticence to receive vaccines. They may think that a vaccine contains “live virus”, and that there is a chance of them being infected with the very disease it is meant to protect them from. Or they may simply be reluctant to be administered with something that sounds threatening or, more simply, unknown.
Communities and trust
The truth is, of course, that vaccines administered to the public have undergone the most rigorous testing possible, and that has always been a core element of CVD-Mali’s work. We want to be absolutely sure that treatments are as safe as they are effective.
And that introduces another core aspect of our mission – to communicate effectively with communities and encourage them to see for themselves the benefits of vaccination.
I am proud to say that our relationships with communities across Mali have led to exceptional take-up of vaccines, particularly in the case of mothers with young children, who know that routine vaccines help protect their loved ones against a whole host of diseases which may well have led to severe disability or even death just a few generations ago.
We must fulfil vaccine commitments
But administering vaccines is not only a question of trust. It is also a question of logistics and infrastructure – and this is, to my mind, is a far more pressing issue than vaccine hesitancy.
In the specific case of COVID-19 vaccines, and with the pandemic no longer dominating headlines and front pages as it once did, it may be tempting to think that the worst is behind us, even that the need for vaccines has lessened.
My firm belief, which I reiterate here during World Immunization Week 2022, is that we still have solemn commitments, as a world community, that we are yet to fulfil.
When the pandemic was at its height, we heard repeatedly that vaccination would only have the desired effect if stocks were distributed equitably across the world, including to the poorest countries and communities.
Now it seems highly likely that the world will fail to keep its promise to vaccinate 70% of the global population by June 2022.
And vaccination rates in African countries are among the most disappointing of all.
Vaccination for all
Underlying problems related to inadequate health infrastructure in low-income countries remain, of course, but increasingly it seems that the wider world has simply forgotten that commitments made are also commitments that need to be honoured.
For one simple truth about vaccines remains: they are most effective when enough of the target population receive their benefits.
Today, in pandemic terms, that target population is very easy to define: it is everybody, every human being on the planet, wherever they live.
The benefits of invention, of the ingenious human technology that is vaccination, ought to be felt by all.
Today, Mali joins the nations of Colombia and The Philippines in celebrating the official global launch of the Solidarity Trial Vaccines (STV), a large international randomised clinical study coordinated by the World Health Organization (WHO), together with national ministries of health, to rapidly test new promising COVID-19 vaccine candidates.
COVID-19 is one of the biggest health and economic threats the world has seen in decades. The rapid development of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines is a remarkable scientific achievement, but many countries do not have access to these vaccines or do not have enough doses to protect their populations: the world needs more vaccines to protect everyone, wherever the live, from the virus and all its variants. The STV trial has a critical role to play in testing new vaccines for COVID-19.
All candidate vaccines in the trial have been carefully selected by leading international experts, after first trial phases showed their potential to be safe and effective. Initial results from the trial could be ready by early 2022, but the study will be ongoing as potential new vaccines are added as and when they pass the WHO’s strict entry criteria.
In Mali, the STV trial is being coordinated by CVD-Mali in association with the Ministry of Health, and aims to include 40,000 participants throughout the country. Recruitment began in October at a number of trial sites in the Bamako region, and to date over 4,200 volunteers have enrolled.
“This is a very important trial for Mali, and for Africa” said Prof. Samba Sow, Director General of CVD-Mali, and the trial’s Principal Investigator. “We are extremely proud to take part, as this trial will help shape history. The people of Mali will make a real difference in finding more safe and effective vaccines to help protect the whole world from COVID-19.”
Professor Samba Sow, Director-General of CVD-Mali, today addressed attendees at the 4th Forum Galien Africa in Dakar, Senegal.
During a panel entitled AFRICA MOBILIZES FOR GLOBAL HEALTH SECURITY, Prof. Sow discussed the issue of Crisis Communication, or Risk Communication and Community Engagement.
Asked how he sees the role of the African scientific community in communication, misinformation or mistrust, Prof. Sow replied:
In order to solve this problem, we must first of all make an effort to understand the causes of people’s mistrust, whether they are cultural, economic or specific to a particular region. Above all, we must not make the mistake of ignoring or ignoring the concerns of our fellow citizens. That would be completely counterproductive.
The response must be tailored to the specificities of the population we are seeking to protect. It is by taking into account the particular features of each situation that we will be most likely to convince and save lives.
I want to emphasise this point. We are talking about saving millions of lives on the African continent. That is why we need to join forces with all stakeholders to protect their communities: politicians, opinion leaders, to engage in dialogue with citizens on the basis of scientific data.
Without hiding the risks, but presenting a state of the art of the situation.
It is by engaging in discussion with the population that we will be able to convince our interlocutors. By presenting them with the scientific data accumulated over decades through the press, through social networks, through the voices of trusted leaders, we will overcome false information. This is what we are working on in the African Voices of Science initiative.
We have put together a clear message based on the best available science, and we are now working to convince leaders and people across Africa.
But scientific collaboration is also about capacity. We need to be able to produce the vaccines and treatments ourselves. In this way, we can not only be more effective in rolling out vaccine coverage, but we can also manage these programmes independently.
Improving the overall quality of our health systems now will have a very beneficial effect on people’s confidence in health interventions.
Finally, it will be the results that speak for themselves. When it becomes clear to everyone that vaccinated people get sick less often, are less severely affected, and are less likely to lose their lives.
Our case for immunization will become more audible as its benefits become more apparent in communities. That’s why we need to do everything we can to expand immunization to all populations, and demonstrate its protective benefits locally.
The importance of effective communication can never be underestimated. It has taken time, patience and close collaboration with these communities to overcome fears and misunderstandings.
The COVID-19 vaccines will require the same patience and commitment. The African Voices of Science initiative was created to address this challenge.”
The Forum GalienAfrica is an initiative of the Galien Foundation. Founded in France 50 years ago by pharmacist Roland Mehl in honor of Galen, the father of medical science and modern pharmacology, the Prix Galien supports, recognizes and awards the efforts of scientists, researchers and companies committed to advancing medical innovation with the power to change the human condition. Worldwide, the Prix Galien is regarded as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in biopharmaceutical research.
We are very pleased to announce that Professor Samba Sow, Director General of CVD-Mali, has been awarded the Speak Up Africa Leadership Award for 2021.
Launched in 2019, this award aims to recognise and celebrate institutions and individuals who demonstrate exemplary leadership in sustainable development and whose initiatives are having a positive impact on the African continent.
Receiving his award, Professor Sow said:
I thank Speak Up Africa for the 2021 Leadership Award.
It is a pleasure to collaborate with an organisation that shares my values, and which highlights talented African Voices of Science in the four corners of our continent.
Only when all sectors of society work together and pull in the same direction will we achieve our common goals.
The other recipients of the 2021 award are Mr Serigne Mbaye Thiam, Minister of Water and Sanitation in Senegal, Ms Sarah Diouf, Founder and Creative Director of Tongoro, Mr Harouna Drabo, a Journalist in Burkina Faso and Dr Odry Agbessy, President of the VIA-ME organisation.
Based in Dakar, Senegal, Speak Up Africa is a non-profit strategic communications and advocacy organisation dedicated to catalysing African leadership, promoting policy change and raising awareness based on sustainable development in Africa.
Putting the improvement of public health at the heart of its work, Speak Up Africa supports the achievement of SDGs 1-6, which include the transformation of African societies and ensuring that every man, woman and child is able to live a long and healthy life.
Heartfelt thanks to the teams at Speak Up Africa and CVD-Mali!
WHO and the Ministries of Health of Colombia, Mali and the Philippines have announced the official launch of the Solidarity Trial Vaccines study.
CVD-Mali is very proud to manage and implement the trial in Mali on behalf of the national government.
Solidarity Trial Vaccines is an international randomised clinical trial platform designed to rapidly evaluate the efficacy and safety of new candidate vaccines.
These promising vaccines were selected by an independent vaccine prioritisation advisory group, consisting of leading scientists and experts, and the study has received approval from all regulatory authorities and ethics committees in Mali.
Researchers in Mali have therefore begun recruiting volunteers for the trial, which will soon be expanded to include multiple sites in the country.
We are extremely pleased to announce that CVD-Mali’s Director General, Professor Samba Sow, has today been honoured both by the Government of Mali and the prestigious National Academy of Medicine (USA) for work in public health and emergency preparedness.
In a ceremony in Bamako today, Prof Sow was made a Commander of the National Order of Mali.