The South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) officially launched the Regional Diagnostic Demonstration Centre (RDDC) in Johannesburg on Friday last week.
A division of the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS), the NICD together with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency Biological Threat Reduction Program (33-BTRP) of the United States of America and Africa Centre for Disease Control (CDC) launched the RDDC, the first Centre of Excellence on the continent.
The South African Health Minister, Dr Joe Phaahla said the centre was going to improve Africa’s biosafety and biosecurity capabilities. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) region would now be in a position to compete with the rest of the world in the prevention of natural, accidental, or deliberate biological events, Phaahla said.
“This and other initiatives like it, illustrate how regional collaborative action can be harnessed to implement robust structures and programs aimed at improving health security and capabilities,” added Phaahla.
Scientists from the region will be offered basic laboratory techniques at the centre which was built to mimic a laboratory environment.
They will also have an opportunity to experience the appropriate infrastructure and operation of laboratories that adhere to world-class biosafety and biosecurity standards in an assimilated environment.
Services that are going to be provided at the centre include, a laboratory space built in accordance with internationally accepted laboratory biosafety and biosecurity standards for training in routine diagnostic procedures.
A mock Biosafety Level 3 (BSL3) training suite to allow for skill transfer in terms of the operation and management of high containment facilities in Africa and laboratory diagnosis of dangerous pathogens.
The centre will also provide scientists with laboratory space for skills transfer for the deployment of mobile laboratory units in support of future outbreak responses.
“It has never been more important to build capacity for dealing with infectious disease pandemics, while also promoting a culture of laboratory safety and security to minimise the risks of accidental environmental exposure and intentional misuse,” said the NICD’s Executive Director, Professor. Adrian Puren.
US Ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety II, said the centre would help reduce the risk of outbreaks of diseases in South Africa and the rest of the African continent.
Brigety also said that the renovation of the facility was a result of a partnership commitment from multiple stakeholders who contributed in their different ways to make it a success.
According to Brigety, gaps in Africa’s capabilities to deal with zoonotic diseases were identified during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. This is when plans were subsequently developed to strengthen the response to these diseases.
“In 2015, South Africa committed to strengthening laboratory capacity and DTRA has partnered with South Africa to help realise this commitment, reducing the impact of future zoonotic outbreaks through early diagnosis and reporting,” said Brigety.
He added that the US government was looking forward to more partnership opportunities that would allow for the strengthening of global health security.
The centre will also serve as a pilot for the development of three other Centres of Excellence in Central, East and West Africa which are expected to be launched in 2023.
“Through the chair of the Southern Africa Regional Technical Working Group (SARTWG), chaired by Lesotho, the nine member states in the Southern Africa region proposed that South Africa, in the NICD, be considered as the Centre of Excellence for biosafety and biosecurity for the region,” said the Senior Biosafety and Technical Officer at the Africa CDC, Dr Talkmore Maruta.
According to Maruta, the development of the centre was in line with the Africa CDC’s new public health order for Africa roadmap which focused on sustainable outcomes in health security.
The NICD worked together with the Africa CDC to develop the regional training and certification programme. The two bodies also worked together to develop the regulatory and certification framework for institutions handling high-risk pathogens.
“For the first time, we now have a set of minimum standards regionally agreed by Africa for biosafety and biosecurity for high containment facilities,” said Maruta.
“As a region, we now have our own training and certification programme, developed by us Africans, to address our own African unique challenges,” Maruta added.
Maruta concluded that other member states in the region and beyond, who did not have similar infrastructure were going to benefit from the RDDC.