One step to 10,000
In October 2021, the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund (https://www.rsif-paset.org/) marked a major milestone with the completion of the initiative’s first ever PhD.
Jean Nepomuscene Hakizimana, a Rwandese national registered at Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA), Tanzania, defended his doctoral thesis on the genetic variation and epidemiology of the African swine fever virus (ASFV), in eastern and southern Africa.
His research, conducted within the SACIDS Foundation for One Health headquartered at SUA, strongly contributes towards the global race to develop effective management strategies of African swine fever, a haemorrhagic viral and transboundary animal disease of domestic and wild pigs. Although it is not a threat to human health, this highly contagious disease that kills up to 100% of all infected animals, has raised global concern. It has been described as unstoppable and unrelenting, its burden now extending beyond Africa to Asia and Europe.
Launched in 2017, RSIF is the flagship programme of the Partnership for skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (PASET), an initiative led by African governments and their key partners to address systemic gaps in skills and knowledge required for long-term, sustained economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). RSIF is the first pan-African science fund focused purely on doctoral training, research and innovation that is owned and managed by African governments. In 2018, the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (www.icipe.org), was competitively selected as the Regional Coordination Unit (RCU) of RSIF, a role governed by the PASET Executive Board.
“PASET is reaping its first fruits. Today, its educational model, its international partnerships, the financial commitment of governments, allow the emergence of young African talents who will undoubtedly make it possible to meet the continent’s challenges and contribute to global scientific production,” notes Prof. Aminata Sall Diallo, Executive Director, PASET Executive Board.
“As an early contributor to the RSIF, the government of Rwanda is delighted by this remarkable accomplishment by one of our own. It re-affirms our belief in RSIF as an ideal platform that supports Rwanda’s goal of equipping more researchers with PhDs as a way of overcoming any limitations to achieving research and innovation potential,” says Dr Valentine Uwamariya, Minister of Education, Rwanda and Chair of the PASET Governing Council.”
Although African swine fever has remained endemic to Africa since its detection 100 years ago, it has spread to many parts of the world, most recently to the Asia-Pacific region with devastating impact on pig production and the pork industry. The disease is ranked by OIE – World Organisation for Animal Health as the most important global cause of deaths of domestic pigs. The virus is transmitted through a range of ways including soft-bodied ticks, infected swine and contaminated pork products. While progress has been made, currently there is no vaccine for African swine fever and control measures consist of strict animal quarantine, trade restrictions, culling and biosecurity procedures.
“The main hindrance to the management of African swine fever is limited knowledge of the genetic variation of the disease’s virus, for example changes through mutation, or recombination of its genes creating novel viral strains,” explains Jean. “Through our research, we completed the first whole genome sequences of African swine fever viruses circulating in eastern and southern Africa, where several outbreaks of the disease have been reported over the recent past.”
He adds: “Our study also provides insights on the genetic structure of the virus, and the linkages with its antigenic diversity – the mechanisms by which the virus alters itself to avoid the host’s immune response.”
The findings reveal a high variation of the African swine fever virus, as well as genetic differences from a geographical and historical perspective. The results suggests persistent circulation and transboundary transmission of the virus across eastern and southern Africa. This knowledge on the transmission dynamics and genetic evolution of the African swine fever virus will support vaccine development, diagnostics and antivirals, and the formulation of science-based policies towards a regional approach to control African swine fever.
“icipe is honoured to support RSIF and its noble goal for the continent, through our mandate that includes overall coordination planning, monitoring and evaluation of the programme,” says icipe Director General & CEO, Dr Segenet Kelemu. “Over the past two years, RSIF has evolved into one of the strongest networks on the continent for training, research and innovation in applied sciences, engineering and technology.”
RSIF incorporates a network of 15 African Host Universities (AHUs); competitively and rigorously selected universities, research institutes or centres based in Africa that offer a PhD programme in any one of thematic areas identified by PASET as priority economic sectors for growth and development in Africa. The AHUs are complemented by international partner institutions (IPIs), advanced universities, research institutes, centres and public and private sector companies.
Through this model, Jean benefited from the capacity of the Community of Practice for Viral Diseases of Food Security and Livelihood Importance at SACIDS. He also gained from the expertise of researchers at Ghent University, Belgium, an RSIF IPI, and the Rwanda National Industrial Research and Development Agency. Thus, his research was conducted through a multidisplinary approach combining viral genomics, bioinformatics and social sciences, as well as access to next-generation sequencing technologies.
“To meet the aspirations of The Africa We Want, as stipulated in Agenda 2063 of the African Union, the continent must empower its youth with world class expertise and commit to using science, technology and innovation in addressing developmental challenges,” states Prof. Gerald Misinzo, the RSIF Coordinator at SACIDS of SUA and primary supervisor of Jean.
He adds: “SACIDS is proud to have contributed to building Jean’s expertise in genomics, a vital tool in containing viral epidemics. The importance of genomic surveillance for early detection and identification of pathogens, as a prerequisite to containing viral epidemics before they become unmanageable has been particularly evidenced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, alongside advanced robotics and autonomous transport, artificial intelligence and machine learning, advanced materials, and biotechnology, genomics is one of the skills needed to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”
Jean holds a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine obtained in 2014 from Inter-State School of Sciences and Veterinary Medicine (EISMV) at the Cheikh Anta Diop University, Dakar, Senegal, through a scholarship of excellence by the government of Rwanda; and an MSc in Veterinary Public Health (epidemiology and health risk management option) from the same university.
RSIF aims to train 10,000 PhDs over the next 10 years. Jean is one of the 15 scholars in the first Cohort that commenced their studies in 2018. The rest, from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Benin, Côte d'Ivoire, Tanzania and Senegal, are in advanced stages of their PhD studies. In total, RSIF has awarded 184 PhD scholarships, 40% of them to women scholars.
Peer reviewed publications
Hakizimana, J.N.; Yona, C.; Kamana, O.; Nauwynck, H.; Misinzo, G. African Swine Fever Virus Circulation between Tanzania and Neighboring Countries: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Viruses 2021, 13, 306. https://doi.org/10.3390/v13020306
Hakizimana, J.N., Nyabongo, L., Ntirandekura J.B., Yona, C., Ntakirutimana D., Kamana O., Nauwynck, H. and Misinzo, G. Genetic Analysis of African Swine Fever Virus From the 2018 Outbreak in South-Eastern Burundi. Front. Vet. Sci., 05 November 2020, https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2020.578474
Hakizimana, J.N., Kamwendo, G., Chulu, J.L.C. et al. Genetic profile of African swine fever virus responsible for the 2019 outbreak in northern Malawi. BMC Vet Res 16, 316 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12917-020-02536-8
Hakizimana, J.N., Ntirandekura, J.B., Yona, C. et al. Complete genome analysis of African swine fever virus responsible for outbreaks in domestic pigs in 2018 in Burundi and 2019 in Malawi. Trop Anim Health Prod 53, 438 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11250-021-02877-y