Travelling to Africa with an expensive car containing lab equipment to sequence DNA is not something to approach lightly. From the logistical challenge of getting equipment in country to the ethics of doing genetics in Africa, there are a plethora of issue that need to be addressed. Put simply, if you were planning to conduct genetic research into malaria parasites and vectors, a quick trip with lots of driving really isn’t the best way to do it. By providing only a snapshot of the problem in any one country, there’s a risk that such an endeavour trivialises the complexity of infectious disease burden and may even have the potential to overshadow the determined long term efforts of many people across the continent.
Infectious diseases in general, and the big three of malaria, tuberculosis and HIV in particular, are a serious problem across the developing world. Almost 5% of all deaths globally in 2017 were due to just these three diseases. The reasons for this are complex and multifaceted, but to really tackle them a broad, interdisciplinary and concerted approach involving multiple different agencies and organisations is required. Suggesting that a journey like ours holds any answers to such a big issue is just plain unhelpful.
But that’s not to say that our journey won’t achieve anything. We will learn a lot about malaria and how the way it’s controlled changes across different African geographies. Our snapshot of experience will be exactly that: a record of the situation of malaria in parts of Africa in 2019. So by documenting the people and places we visit, we’ll begin to understand how the nature of the disease differs in different countries, and how local conditions affect the ways in which the disease is controlled. And if genetic sequencing is to have a place in the future of infectious disease research and control, it has to involve the adoption of the technology locally, so we’re excited to share our knowledge through training local scientists and trialling the equipment in the field.
The five principles of the Mobile Malaria Project
In this article, we want to outline the main principles that we intend to follow so that we can address the potential impacts, both positive and negative, that we foresee our journey having. There are likely to be concerns that we haven’t addressed here, so feel free to get in touch. However, we hope that by articulating what we are doing, and why, we can provide some clarity on our aims and motivations, whilst being open about, and acknowledging, the limitations that a journey like ours entails.
We will put African science centre stage
This project is not about the three members of the team based in the UK. Our journey takes us from the University of Namibia in Windhoek to the KEMRI Centre for Global Health Research in Kisumu, Kenya, via the National Malaria Elimination Centre in Zambia and the Ifakara Health Research Institute in Tanzania. As researchers based in the global north, we are incredibly excited about the opportunity to learn about the diverse African science that we’ll encounter along the route and we intend to use our journey to celebrate this science through our various science communication projects. This is the main aim of our trip.
And we’re also excited about having the opportunity to share our genetics skills and knowledge with these researchers along our route. We’ll be working with geneticists based in Africa who haven’t had the same opportunity as us to trial and learn to use the latest sequencing technologies. Using the car as an outdoor classroom, we’re going to teach researchers about genetics and train them in the core practical and computational skills needed to generate genetic data in the field. We hope that this training will lead to even more African-led genetics research in the future.
We support long term research partnerships
It follows from the above that we’re advocates of long-term meaningful and equitable research partnerships. In Oxford, our colleagues at MalariaGEN (amongst many others) have led the way to developing the practical and legal infrastructures for large collaborative networks for malaria genetic work and we continue to take guidance and advice on best practice for genetic research in Africa. We have also benefited from a small grant from the Africa Oxford Initiative to support new the collaborative link between members of the expedition team and Dr Eric Ochomo in KEMRI Kisumu.
We’re also fortunate to be visiting researchers who represent the Pan African Mosquito Control Association (PAMCA), a multinational initiative aimed at bringing together vector control researchers from across the continent. As well as learning more about this initiative, we also intend to discuss how genetics might contribute to future work by our colleagues in Africa. Our training programs will provide an opportunity to understand the case for future collaboration and development of further research partnerships.
And, of course, as we travel through Africa we’ll learn about other initiatives that we are not currently aware of.
We will take nothing out that we didn’t bring in
Our scientific mantra. We’re shipping equipment and laboratory reagents (the chemicals needed to run experiments) to allow us to run our training projects, and we will use samples collected by our colleagues — not us — when using sequencing machines in country. The samples used will remain in country, and all DNA extracted from them and PCR products generated through our training will either be stored by colleagues for later work by them in country, or destroyed. We are not interested in taking any samples, or derivatives of them, out of the countries that we visit.
Our self-imposed ban on exporting things covers genetic data as well, so we will not take sequence data generated in country out with us. These will be removed from our hard drives and laptops at the end of our training projects. Our collaborators will have full control over the access and future use of sequence data, our main ambition is that we help build practical and technical capacity for future work.
The one exception to this rule are photographs and other records of our experiences. We aim to shine a light on the people that we meet and the places that we visit, so documenting these is a big part of the journey. We will ask for consent before using photos of people on our website or recording their voices for our podcast.
We care about the environment
Driving a diesel car across Africa is not the most environmentally friendly thing to do, but we believe that our proposed journey could not realistically be achieved without it.
Nevertheless, we acknowledge that there is a negative impact to the climate and environment from our work. Whilst we will never win an argument based on our use of unsustainable fossil fuels, our main sponsors Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) use 100% renewable electricity to power their operations in the UK, indicating that – at least whilst vehicles are still built with combustion engines – more sustainable options are used when they’re available.
JLR have also reduced their tailpipe emissions by a third in the last decade, and the specific vehicle we will be driving is Land Rover’s All New Discovery, which is now fitted with a particulate filter to further reduce emissions.
Our flights from London to Namibia and back from Kenya are another source of carbon emissions. These economy flights will contribute a total of just under 6 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions each. Our car emits roughly 200g/km, so over the course of 7,000km will produce a further 1.4 tonnes of CO2. We have offset 20 tonnes of CO2 by donating to schemes generating renewable energy in developing countries, which not only assist in reducing carbon emissions but also invest in local economies.
We are shipping the car (much more environmentally friendly than flying it!) with support from the leading global logisitics company DB Schenker, who have already reduced CO2 emissions from ocean transport by 60% since 2013, by optimising vessel size, fuel, routes and aerodynamics and have ambitious plans to achieve further reductions by 2020.
We’ve also partnered with Kathmandu for some premium outdoor equipment and clothing, something we’re particularly excited about because of their commitment to environmental sustainability – from achieving zero waste to reducing and offsetting their carbon use and making clothing from recycled and responsible materials.
We are aware of the history of Western expeditionary science
In 1900, Sir Ronald Ross, winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine for discovering how malaria was transmitted, spoke about his malaria expedition to West Africa:
In the coming century, the success of Imperialism will depend largely upon success with the microscope. EDITORIAL (1900) SCIENCE 11 262 p36
At the time, science and colonialism were deeply linked. Given this history, we acknowledge that the cadence of our journey might not sit well with some people.
119 years after Ross, for researchers from the global north, decolonising field research – particularly in sub-Saharan Africa – is a major issue. Decolonisation is the movement to eliminate, or at least mitigate, the disproportionate legacy of white European thought and culture in science.
In some sense, we have been inspired to write the preceding principles in order to appear cognisant of this particular issue, whilst endeavouring to do something that allows us to learn, add value and share our experiences and knowledge in new contexts.
This is why in addition to our aim to document and communicate the range of science being conducted in Africa, by Africans, our second aim is to work on two training projects with our colleagues in Zambia and Kenya. These nascent partnerships with government and research institutions will ensure that our work is locally owned and relevant to their needs. We’ll learn about the needs of our fellow researchers which will influence future programs and research.
We also hope that this work will be sustainable, which we can achieve through the development of these future training programs and research partnerships. Our aim is very much to put novel tools in the hands of Africa’s scientists, so that they can do the research that they believe is necessary.