Africa Renewal: What has the Ebola response taught Africa about how to prepare for COVID-19?
Dr. Moeti: The important lesson we learned from the Ebola outbreak, which is being applied now, is how to start work early at the community level, because communities are key at the start of an outbreak, in terms of surveillance and recognizing patterns of illness.
We have engaged the people strongly, working through community groups to disseminate information about the pattern of the coronavirus disease and how to protect oneself. We have also learned that it is important not only to tell people things, but to also listen to them and to incorporate that information into our strategies. There is a huge amount of information — some of it incorrect — circulating about this coronavirus, and we have learned from the Ebola experience to reach out; not just to send radio messages, but to talk to people and hear them.
We have also built on the capacity already put in place for the Ebola outbreak. For example, some of the laboratory testing capacity was built around the Ebola experience. We learned a lot about point-of-entry screening of people through work on Ebola and have now started a strong partnership with the International Organization for Migration (IOM). We have learned a lot also about the rapid exchange of capacities, including those of laboratories, between countries.
In relation to the lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak, one of the things that I'm hoping will help us is testing out therapeutics even as we are using them. In carrying out clinical trials, we learned how to bring partners together. We are seeing many coalitions of technical agencies, the private sector and WHO coming together to look at therapeutics and vaccine development. I think these are some of the precious lessons that came out of the Ebola experience and will be very useful during this pandemic.
What continental solidarity efforts are under way?
At the continental level, one of the first and most important issues for us, was that diagnostic capacity was very limited in the region. At the beginning we had only two laboratories able to diagnose COVID-19 and they offered their services to other African countries. We were shipping specimens to Dakar’s Institut Pasteur and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in Johannesburg, who have also been training other countries.
We have seen an exchange of expertise between countries, and ministers of health networking among themselves to exchange their own experiences and offer each other ideas. I think there's been a real openness towards providing support to each other among African countries and I'm certain that we'll continue to see this solidarity.