The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has revealed chronic underinvestment in health system strengthening and health research, exposing gaps in global capacity to tackle infectious disease outbreaks. While investments in, and lessons learnt from research and innovation (R&I) cooperation on infectious diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis (TB), Ebola and malaria helped to fast track the global response to COVID-19, there is a risk that in turn, the rapidly evolving R&I landscape will hinder, rather than catalyse progress on poverty-related and neglected diseases (PRNDs) R&I.
Among infectious diseases, PRNDs are the leading cause of mortality and morbidity in sub-Saharan Africa, claiming six million lives across the continent every year, constituting one of the greatest challenges to public health in Africa. It is now time to ‘return the favour’, and harness the opportunity to create and further strengthen funding and cooperation platforms to develop new technologies that could offer ways forward for tackling the HIV, TB and malaria epidemics and to eradicate neglected diseases endemic in many sub-Saharan African countries.
How does R&I cooperation play a role?
In recent years, the African Union (AU) and the European Union’s (EU) relationship on R&I has grown closer, with a handful of initiatives and strategies implemented to drive forward cooperation in this field. These include the ‘Africa Initiative’, a series of targeted actions under the EU’s flagship R&I programme Horizon Europe and the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP), whose third phase, the Global Health EDCTP3 was launched during the Tenth EDCTP Forum in October 2021.
During the first AU-EU Research & Innovation Ministers’ Meeting in July 2020, four thematic priority areas were agreed on, which included public health. In light of this, the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation (DG RTD) and International Partnerships (DG INTPA) commissioned an Advisory Group on Research and Innovation for AU-EU cooperation to assist them in finding answers on how to best mainstream and boost R&I-cooperation in the field of health systems.
New opportunities lie ahead.
On February 17, the Advisory Group, made up of experts and research assistants from both Africa and Europe published a new policy study titled ‘Recommendations on how to make R&I a driver for sustainable development in AU-EU relations’, which includes a chapter on health and health systems. The paper incorporates feedback from over three hundred African and European participants and lays out recommendations for instruments and priority actions to inform the dialogue between AU and EU policymakers – with a special focus on actions beyond 2024.
The policy paper presents a clear roadmap for taking AU-EU cooperation to the next level, providing key recommendations to; improve capacity building in health systems, including R&I; strengthen the ethics and regulatory environment; promote synergies among existing global health R&I initiatives. The study calls for stronger participation of African and European civil society and patients in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of health R&I policies, and encourages the creation of more EDCTP-modelled collaborations in health priority areas.
The study also highlights the richness and complexities of the global health R&I ecosystem and calls for AU-EU cooperation to create synergies among them, e.g. through the development of ‘a joint agenda for health and health systems R&D, led by national governments, with all stakeholders involved […], efficient sharing of data and information between the AU and EU, [… and the] promotion of open science principles in R&I.’ Furthermore, it also calls for the incorporation of gender and diversity aspects into research programmes as a prerequisite for institutional support and collaboration, and the development of ‘hybrid-blended’ financial instruments to advance health R&I.
This AU-EU summit offers a key opportunity for African and European leaders to consider the recommendations put forward by the Advisory Group, and implement actions to ensure that AU-EU cooperation on R&I contributes to strengthening public health.
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