Researchers in Ghana, in partnership with the Francis Crick Institute, have launched a new study to monitor immune function in response to COVID-19 vaccines among African people. The project, led by Crick African Network Fellow Yaw Bediako, is the first of its kind to compare immune responses to the same vaccine in both African and European populations, and could provide important insights into how vaccines can be optimally designed for African people.
Yaw Bediako has been awarded the first Calestous Juma Science Leadership Fellowship to launch the study aimed at understanding the immune response to COVID-19 vaccines in African people. Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Heritage study will follow 300 people over one year, during which researchers will collect and analyse regular blood and swab samples.
“Most traditional vaccines show lower effectiveness in Africa,” says Yaw. “We think this is because people in Africa are usually exposed to other diseases. For example, malaria symptoms are the result of an inflammatory immune response, but with repeated exposure, the immune system becomes more tolerant.
“So, when the goal is to activate the immune system, using a vaccine to help it recognise a new disease like COVID-19, we might not achieve such a strong level of protection.”
Yaw’s team in Ghana have partnered with researchers at the Crick to mirror the processes and testing carried out as part of the Legacy study, which tracks the immune response and symptoms of healthy individuals in the UK.
With both studies running in parallel, they will be able to compare results from two geographically distant groups of people and understand more about the similarities and differences of the immune response to COVID-19 vaccines.
“We’re not assessing how effective the current vaccines are,” added Yaw. “But the insights in to the nature of the immune response could inform vaccine design for African populations in the future.”
This isn’t Yaw’s first partnership with the Crick. He joined the Malaria Immunology Laboratory after completing his first postdoc in Kenya. And in 2018, he was awarded a Crick African Network training fellowship, supporting his own research at the West African Centre for Cell Biology and Infectious Pathogens in Ghana, into immunological responses of children in areas of high and low malaria transmission.
His work is a brilliant example of how the Crick African Network can support early-career researchers to make the transition to becoming science leaders with their own research groups in Africa.
“It’s not just about training people,” says Yaw. “It’s about giving people the freedom to pursue their own goals, good mentorship and mutual respect.
“If done properly, capacity building efforts can benefit everyone, there is so much research potential in Africa.”
From his CAN fellowship, and his University faculty position, Yaw has also gone on to launch his own biotechnology company in Ghana. Yemaachi Biotechnology is using immunogenomics, bioinformatics and artificial intelligence techniques, to accelerate the development of cancer detection and treatment strategies.
The goal is to reduce the burden of cancer in Africa, but Yaw also thinks that this research could have wider implications for our understanding of the disease.
“Most globally available genomic data are from Caucasian people,” he adds. “Africa is the most genetically diverse continent and African genomes may hold previously undiscovered clues to understanding human health.”
Jean Langhorne, head of the Crick’s Malaria Immunology Laboratory and leader of the Crick African Network, said: “It’s incredibly important for different countries to have their own research capacity to study diseases like COVID-19, because they have different ethnicities, age groups, and disease exposures. Yaw is doing incredible work as an African research leader, building capacity and inspiring the next generation of scientists. And we’re thrilled that he has continued to partner with the Crick.
“Programmes like the Crick African Network are helping raise the profile of research in Africa and establish long-lasting partnerships that will improve our understanding of and ability to treat many diseases. We hope to grow our activity in Africa, building on this successful programme and supporting more future science leaders.”