Africa’s regional centre for biosecurity now opens

Health Minister, Dr Joe Phaahla, on Friday officially opened Africa’s first Regional Diagnostic Demonstration Centre (RDDC).

“The centre advances and strengthens South Africa’s biosafety and biosecurity system capabilities and its role in the Southern African region to prevent natural, accidental, or deliberate biological events,” the Minister explained.

Under the umbrella of the International Health Regulations of the World Health Organisation (WHO), biosafety and biosecurity capacity and competency in the Member States is identified as an area most in need of improvement.

Recognising this need, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), a division of the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) and the Defence Threat Reduction Agency Biological Threat Reduction Program (DTRA-BTRP) of the United States and Africa Centre for Disease Control (Africa CDC) launched the RDDC, the first of its kind in the continent.

The centre, which has its headquarters in Johannesburg, Gauteng, will boost laboratory capabilities all over Africa, advancing the objective of a safe and secure Africa.

The RDDC will also provide specialised diagnostic training and capacity building for Africa.

The centre will also cover areas of viral haemorrhagic fevers and other emerging infectious diseases.

“Over the past decade, Africa has experienced an increased number of devastating outbreaks, including Ebola in West Africa and now the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Upholding robust biosafety and biosecurity systems and practices remains a critical priority for the global community, especially in mounting a response to these outbreaks,” Phaahla said.

The COVID-19 pandemic, he said, compounded the public health challenges experienced on the African continent where resources to respond to epidemic-prone diseases remain limited.

He noted that the pandemic amplified pre-existing concerns, especially in Africa about the safekeeping and handling of pathogens, samples, and other potentially harmful biological materials.

According to the Minister, this also prompted the construction of new laboratories with new technologies.

“But not all were accompanied with rigorous personnel training, robust dual-use oversight protocols, bioinformatics, cybersecurity, and physical plant security.”

He believes to strengthen the efficiency of responding quickly, African States need to improve their capacities in disease recognition and laboratory competence, including biosafety and biosecurity capacities.

Since the launch of the Africa CDC Biosecurity and Biosafety Initiative in 2019, Phaahla said South African experts have played a significant role in supporting the objectives of this programme.

“This, and other initiatives like it, illustrates how regional collaborative action can be harnessed to implement robust structures and programmes aimed at improving health security and capabilities.”

The Minister believes the facility has great promise since the Africa CDC certified the RDDC as the first Regional Centre of Excellence for Biosafety and Biosecurity (RCoEBB) to offer its Regional Training and Certification Programmes for Biosafety and Biosecurity Professionals in the continent.

This facility, according to the Minister, will also serve as a pilot for the other four regional centres of excellence that the Africa CDC plans to establish across the continent.

“Therefore, there is no room for failure. It is imperative that we make a deliberate and concerted effort aimed at building regional capability to overcome identified regional biosafety and biosecurity vulnerabilities.”

In addition, he said South Africa is committed to building regional laboratory capacity to mitigate the spread of any infections in the event of an outbreak in the region and beyond.

“The role of governments in improving biosecurity and global capacities to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious events cannot be overemphasised,” he stressed.

He also recognised the Canadian High Commissioner to South Africa, Christopher Cooler, who announced funding for the establishment of the RDDC as a regional centre of excellence.