Virtual Keystone Symposia "Malaria in the Era of COVID-19": Day 2
MESA Correspondents bring you cutting-edge coverage from the Keystone Symposia "Malaria in the Era of COVID-19"
Day 2: Wednesday, 17th March 2021
Notification of Top Three Posters
Regina Rabinovich (Barcelona Institute for Global Health - ISGlobal, Spain), welcomed the attendees to the second day of the keystone symposia. Rabinovich announced and congratulated the three poster prize winners Piyawan Kochayoo (Thailand), Ifeoma Ozodiegwu (Nigeria) and Shweta Singh (India). She then outlined the sessions of the day, including interesting panel discussions on career development, a talk by Abdisalan Noor and short talks by the poster prize winners and a closing keynote given by Francine Ntoumi.
Following the opening remarks, Sarah K. Volkman (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, USA) chaired the career roundtable featuring Hernando del Portillo (Barcelona Institute for Global Health - ISGlobal, Spain), Kimberly A. Lindblade (World Health Organisation - WHO, Switzerland), Ifeyinwa Aniebo (Harvard University, USA) and Sam Kinyanju (KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme, Kenya).
The panellists occupy various roles in the field of malaria ranging from research to policy. All agreed that the biggest benefit of their positions was working in interdisciplinary teams, which stimulate interactions between people from different cultures, diverse partnerships, the possibility to attend training in academia and to push public policies.
Q: Which challenges did you experience in your early career years?
The panellists faced numerous challenges in their career development path, like inadequate funding, lack of mentorship, low-quality PhD programs in low-middle income countries (LMIC), inadequate projects, and a shortage of training and proper communication. Opportunities that advanced their career were the availability of fellowships, outstanding mentors, passion, and engaging in writing and public speaking competitions. One specific advice for early career researchers was to start off by conducting well-funded projects and pursue their research interests afterwards, to facilitate getting established in their research and finding mentors.
Another often missed opportunity pointed out by the panellists was that scientists often did not get exposed to training or mentorship for management and leadership skills during their early career years. Thus, they highly encouraged early-career scientists to take any opportunity offered for these skills, in addition to learning how to communicate well with people from various positions. Being able to adapt your conversations to align with the goals of those you intend on collaborating with will make your research more impactful.
Q: Which main barriers did you face in malaria-endemic countries?
One of the barriers mentioned related to transfer research skills acquired abroad back to the home countries comprises a lack of investments by governments in LMICs. Researchers trained in countries that are more technologically advanced may often find it difficult to align their implementation plans and methodologies in LMICs, hence remain where they have been trained, or with similar high standards, while keeping collaboration with their home country.
Another barrier identified is that early career researchers are not receiving enough training to help them successfully apply for international grant proposals. The lack of appropriate training and support of seasoned mentors could be overcome by online conferences. One of the tips given was that young scientists in such countries should prioritise attending conferences where they should proactively interact with each other and start collaborations, instead of only listening to talks. Furthermore, they should make more use of available platforms such as the African Academy of Sciences, which aids in programs developing upcoming scientists.
The last barrier mentioned was that when early career researchers are placed in either a teaching or managerial position, they find it difficult to continue with their research and development, which is a barrier to their capacity building. Mentioned was also that, the lack of visibility of women in science in general and in particular in the public health sector should be reverted with proper support and inclusive policies.
Finally, the panelists recommended that young scientists should not think of their life as a career but rather, one of research. The scientific field is dynamic and requires an open-mind for the possibilities that present themselves. Being open-minded will allow growth and gain knowledge, resulting in a change of research interests allowing for greater impact. Panellists emphasised and advised researchers to strive for excellence as they pursue their dreams.
Redefining Targeting of Malaria Interventions to Accelerate Impact
Abdisalan M. Noor (World Health Organisation - WHO, Switzerland) began his talk by alluding to Pedro Alonso’s keynote address from the previous day, which highlighted the limitations imposed by interventions, funding, surveillance and COVID-19 disruptions on research. He emphasized that accepting malaria as a complex and dynamic system would change our mindsets to foster creative solutions. Intervention planning should not solely be based on transmission but should also understand and paying attention to impact determinants as well as the influence these determinants have on a political and social level to reduce the burden and eliminate malaria. An evidence-informed approach, that aims to understand the whole process from different perspectives, opposite to a solely evidence-driven approach, would be crucial in strategic intervention planning in countries. A failure to understand the complexities of malaria can lead to simplistic solutions that would become costly in the long run and undermine the ability of the health system to think dynamically. To be effective and successful on a national scale, a thorough decision-making process is required, including understanding the epidemiology and embracing disease complexity.
Poster Prize Winners Short Talks
The talk by Piyawan Kochayoo will be available soon.
Ifeoma Ozodiegwu (Northwestern University, USA) talked about the application of mathematical models of malaria transmission to inform national strategic planning in Nigeria. The epidemiological modeling software (EMOD) combines a model of temperature-dependent vector life cycle and vector population dynamics, with a model of human disease immunity and intervention effects. The model was calibrated to the malaria seasonality and transmission intensity in Nigeria, also taking into account country specific intervention coverage. Several alternative intervention combinations of interest to the Nigerian government were simulated to predict impact on malaria morbidity and mortality from 2020 to 2030.
Shweta Singh´s (International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology - ICGEB, India) poster talk was about how Plasmodium falciparum Eps15 homology domain-containing protein (PfEHD) is capable of remodelling membranes and regulating specific endocytic transport steps in eukaryotic cells. Her study focused on how the parasitic membrane-bound PfEHD could migrate through the parasite’s cytosol and culminate into a large multi-vesicular structure near the food vacuole. She found that eukaryotic endocytosis inhibitors are able to prevent both the development of PfEHD-labelled vesicles and binding of the vesicles onto their target site.
Closing Keynote Address
Philip Welkhoff (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation - BMGF, USA) chaired the closing Keynote that was done by Francine Ntoumi (African Academy of Sciences, Republic of Congo) on “Giving malaria a dose of our COVID-19 response”. Ntoumi outlined the milestone reports, guideline procedures and data concerning COVID-19. The short time frame that it took to understand the COVID-19 virus and epidemiology as well as to develop or scale up intervention methods, especially vaccines were a great surprise with mixed feelings. While vaccine research and development for COVID-19 had accelerated thanks to amazing scientists around the entire globe, no comparable progress has been achieved for malaria, despite decades of efforts. Despite the long period and huge malaria burden across many malaria-endemic countries, only one malaria vaccine is currently under development, which is still in phase 4 compared to 12 vaccines developed for COVID-19. To move forward, Ntoumi emphasised resource mobilisation, continuous international dialogue, and increased support from the private sectors as well as strengthening inter-laboratory collaborations amongst others to tackle the malaria burden faced in Sub-Saharan Africa. She concluded her keynote address by urging everyone to stay engaged until the malaria community has reached its goal – a malaria-endemic free world through its eradication and elimination.
At the end of the Keystone Symposia, Abdisalan Noor thanked all the speakers and attendees as well as the organizers of the eSymposia. He stated that 268 attendees from 47 countries registered at the Malaria in the Era of COVID-19 eSymposia.
Regina Rabinovich summarised the key points made by the speakers and highlighted lessons learned from the two-days. She closed the eSymposia with the following sentence from Zero Malaria, “Malaria, we are too brave for you,” and called for action from all the people to be part of the solution. She further thanked Keystone and MESA for organising the event.
This report is brought to you by the MESA Correspondents Vita Mithi (Armref Data for Action in Public Health Research, Malawi) and Faith Hungwe (Botswana - University of Pennsylvania Partnership, Botswana). Senior editorial support has been facilitated by Julie Chaccour (Independent Consultant, Spain) and Manuela Runge (Northwestern University, USA). It is cross-posted on the MESA website and on MalariaWorld.