In reports, analyzes, photos, videos and podcasts, we report around the world on social injustices, societal developments and promising approaches to global problems.
The pig screams terribly loud. It is held by the muzzle with a metal clamp, and two men in coats take blood. Veterinarian Ilona Glücks stands by, she covers her ears. “It’s not nice to look at, but unfortunately there is no other way,” she says. The German is responsible for animal experiments at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). Thousands of cattle, chickens, pigs and goats are in their care, and a stately cloned cow grazes in the pasture.
In the laboratories, the animals are infected with diseases and then drugs are administered to counteract them. Thanks to these experiments, the ILRI was able, among other things, to develop experimental vaccines against African swine fever. The burps of cows are also captured and measured here – in order to test which feed provides less climate-damaging methane.
The ILRI is enthroned on a hill above Kenya’s capital Nairobi, and the institute attracts scientists from all over the world. Down in the valley, the third corona wave has just been halfway through. For weeks, the hospitals were at their limit, mostly far beyond that. Patients had to be turned away, some died without care. Oxygen became a scarce commodity. The situation has eased somewhat since the beginning of May, but experts are expecting a fourth wave. Especially since the cold season is slowly beginning in Kenya.
And there is not much to suggest that the country is now better prepared for increasing numbers of infections. As before, there is not only a lack of intensive care beds, but also of vaccines. Just two percent of Kenyans received their first vaccination. Laboratory capacities are also limited, especially to test for virus variants.
In this emergency, the ILRI is in greater demand than ever. “Some of our technologies from animal research are now making a decisive contribution. Africa is significantly more advanced in the veterinary sector than in human medicine, after all, animals are the livelihoods of millions of people. We have to take advantage of that now, ”says Vish Nene. He is co-manager of the Animal and Human Health program.
It was ILRI that received a call from the Kenyan Ministry of Health at the beginning of last year. The pandemic had just broken out, and additional test capacities had to be created quickly. “We regularly carry out PCR tests on our animals, it is exactly the same technology. So we have now tested people for Covid. «Sufficient PCR tests are now available in Kenya, but the ILRI is still working on fighting the pandemic.
In a darkened room, a man in a smock is standing at a machine that looks roughly like a large office printer. He pushes in a flat plate with liquid solutions, they are analyzed fully automatically. There are three such devices in the ILRI, they can break down genome sequences. Usually the researchers here examine animal DNA, but human samples are currently running through the machines. Because they recognize which variants of the corona virus are circulating in Kenya. The researchers have already discovered the South African and British mutations.
A few rooms down there is a woman with protective goggles standing at a laboratory table, also holding corona samples in her hand. They have different colors, dark yellow stands for positive. “We’re developing a Covid antibody test here,” says Vish Nene. Because what has long been used in Europe every day remains unaffordable for many African countries. “The existing technology for antibody tests is too expensive, and some components are not sufficiently available here in Africa. So we are simply developing our own test with support from the USA. ”Building on technology from veterinary medicine.
Experts hope that know-how from animal research will also advance the development of vaccines for humans. Because the egoism of the western states and the current supply bottlenecks from India have made it clear: Africa needs its own solutions in the medium and long term. But so far one has been dependent on the pharmaceutical giants from the global north, on the goodwill of western countries. In-house production of Covid vaccines on the continent is still a long way off.
“We are much further ahead in veterinary medicine, many vaccinations are already being made here on the continent,” says Vish Nene. Some of the new active ingredients have been tested at ILRI, for example against Rift Valley fever, which mainly affects cattle, sheep and goats and can also kill people. The vaccine was developed by researchers at Oxford University and tested in Kenya.
This know-how has also proven itself in the fight against Covid. The vaccine smuggles a harmless virus into the body, which then stimulates the immune defense against the real, dangerous, virus. This is how the AstraZeneca vaccine works. He uses exactly the same harmless virus that was researched at the ILRI in 2015 – on animals. “Thanks to this experience, we know that it can be safely used in vaccinations,” says veterinarian Ilona Glücks.
»We have to build on our know-how from animal research and develop our own solutions for Africa, including in human medicine. Then we are no longer dependent on others, ”demands Vish Nene. The problem: Research is extremely expensive, and so far Africa has been viewed more as a suitable location for test series than as a high-tech hub. “The pandemic offers a unique opportunity to change that,” says Nene.
This contribution is part of the Global Society project
Reporters report under the title “Global Society” Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe – about injustices in a globalized world, socio-political challenges and sustainable development. The reports, analyzes, photo series, videos and podcasts appear in the international section of SPIEGEL. The project is long-term and will be supported for three years by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF).
A detailed FAQ with questions and answers about the project can be found here.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) is supporting the project for three years with a total of around 2.3 million euros.
Yes. The editorial content is created without the influence of the Gates Foundation.
Yes. Big European media like “The Guardian” and “El País” have set up similar sections on their news sites with “Global Development” and “Planeta Futuro” with the support of the Gates Foundation.
In the past few years, SPIEGEL has already implemented two projects with the European Journalism Center (EJC) and the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: the “Expedition ÜberMorgen” on global sustainability goals and the journalistic refugee project “The New Arrivals” within the framework several award-winning multimedia reports on the topics of migration and flight have been produced.