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France's Pasteur Institute on Front Lines of Africa's COVID Response

By Lisa Schlein May 14, 2020

There are few days when the Paris-based Pasteur Institute and its far-flung network are not in the news.

Last week, France's flagship research foundation and its U.S. counterparts announced promising compounds for clinical testing against COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Its scientists estimated a French strain of the virus could have circulated here earlier than previously thought, and that less than 5 percent of French have contracted the infection - indicating confinement measures were working.

In Africa, where the institute is present in nearly a dozen countries, the Pasteur Institute's Dakar facility plans to roll out potentially game-changing rapid testing kits, and has earned African Union designation as a coronavirus reference center.

Yet even as the African facilities are lauded for their work and state-of-the-art equipment, some see them entwined with France's colonial legacy, amid growing calls for building a home-grown response to COVID-19 and other health crises.

Others, however, see Pasteur's presence in places like Abidjan (Ivory Coast), Yaounde (Cameroon) or Antananarivo (Madagascar)–answerable to national health ministries and mostly staffed and headed by Africans–as an essential part of the continent's research landscape and development.

"Each institute is autonomous," said Pierre-Marie Girard, director of the Pasteur Institute's international network in an interview.

A global presence

Founded in 1887 and named after iconic creator and French biologist Louis Pasteur, the institute quickly launched branches overseas, starting with a facility six years later in Tunisia, which was then a French protectorate. Today, it has facilities in 25 countries, including nations in Europe and Latin America.

In Africa, Pasteur researchers have focused on diseases like malaria, Zika and Ebola. The foundation has also partnered with the African Academy of Sciences to strengthen scientific collaboration between the continent's anglophone and francophone regions. Some of its scientists have been tapped as Fellows of the Next Einstein Forum, aimed at building African expertise in science and technology.

France designates roughly $7.6 million in annual funding to Pasteur Institute facilities in Africa and Southeast Asia – many located in former French colonies–along with another $4 million for the current coronavirus response. It sends over researchers and offers fellowships. Two of the facilities are headed by French nationals.

The institutes mostly "have their own programs and research financing," Girard said, coming from host governments, grants and other sources.

Still, each must sign onto the foundation's basic principles of research, teaching, technology transfer and working to improve the health of local populations.

Now, with the coronavirus ticking upward on the continent, the research has shifted to a new health crisis.

In Senegal, scientists are partnering with British technology firm Mologic to develop 10-minute detection kits, costing roughly $1 apiece. Pasteur Institute Dakar Director Amadou Sall says they should be ready in June.

The overall aim is "bringing local solutions to Africa's health problems, that take local contexts into account," Sall, a trained virologist, told France 24 news channel.

Such remarks resonate in a continent struggling to fill major gaps in its health sector–especially now. Ethiopia is upgrading old ventilators to serve COVID-19 patients–and training doctors on how to use them, according to news reports. Zimbabwean universities are making masks, gloves and hand sanitizers.

Other efforts are more controversial. Madagascar is touting an herbal remedy for COVID-19, which the World Health Organization cautions remains untested. Nonetheless, the product has sparked demand from a number of African countries.

"What if this remedy had been discovered by a European country, instead of Madagascar?" Malagasy President Andry Rajoelina said in an interview with France 24 and RFI radio. "Would people doubt it so much? I don't think so."

Colonial imprint

Others point more directly to the negative imprint of colonial medicine. Within this context, the Pasteur Institute's past sometimes sits uneasily.

"The French justification of colonialism relied on an idea of the 'civilizing mission,' and providing modern hygiene and medicine was a key part of the promise," said Aro Velmet, a University of Southern California historian who authored a book on the Pasteur Institute.

"Yet the French government was utterly unwilling to invest in the colonies in any capacity even close to the level of public health infrastructure being pursued" in France, he added in an email interview.

That legacy has left an imprint on international pharmaceutical companies today, Velmet said. He said they "tend to focus on studying and treating diseases that bring a lot of scientific prestige to the investigators, but are hardly the most urgent in the societies where the studies are being conducted."

The current pandemic is also stirring old fears.

Last month, a pair of French doctors sparked widespread outrage, after one suggested, in a television interview, that trials be conducted in Africa on the effectiveness of a tuberculosis vaccine against the coronavirus. "No, Africans aren't guinea pigs," French anti-discrimination group SOS Racisme said. Both researchers quickly apologized, saying their remarks were clumsy but not racist. The vaccine is only being tested in Europe and Australia.

But some critics remain unswayed.

"The dialogue was neither an accident nor 'fake news,'" wrote francophone studies professor Mame-Fatou Niang in the publication Slate Afrique. Rather, she said, it exposed "a whole set of practices that have accompanied the event of modern Western medicine" in Africa dating from colonial days.

Alfred Babo, a professor of anthropology at Fairfield University in the U.S. state of Connecticut, also called for the continent to "emancipate itself" when it came to Western research.

"African research and knowledge is given little credibility," he wrote in France's Le Monde newspaper, "especially if it doesn't agree with reputed institutions like the Pasteur Institute."

Pasteur Institute's Girard says its facilities in Africa are essentially African ones – even if they get some French support.

"Does it mean, because we're partners–either through financing or experts–that this can be branded neocolonialism?" he asked.

"I understand that people want their Pasteur Institute completely autonomous," he added. "But at our level, research is inevitably international."

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