At the time, Africa was almost literally the country cousin in terms of its status in world research, and Happi recalled arriving at London’s Heathrow Airport — “a little African with a big suitcase, and feeling a little lost”.
But he made a big impact in the conference at Oxford, where as one of the few African attendees he put forward “a bunch of wacky ideas” for using gene technology in vaccines.
Such methods are at the heart of several COVID vaccines being researched today, but at the time such thinking was out of the mainstream, and Happi was snapped up by Harvard to carry out research there.
He studied and then taught there for a dozen years, specialising in malaria, a disease that claims nearly 400,000 lives each year, almost 100,000 of them in Nigeria alone.
“As long as research is not carried out on the continent, there will be no vaccine,” said Happi. “You have to be here.”
– Lassa fever –
It wasn’t his interest in malaria that brought him home, but Lassa fever — a deadly haemorrhagic cousin of Ebola.
In 2007, learning about the disease that killed around 700 Nigerians each year, Happi was stupefied to find that tests for Lassa were sent to Germany. In the time it took to get the results back, 90 percent of patients had already died.
“It is completely unacceptable that a disease discovered in 1969 still does not have diagnostics in 2007,” he said at the time.
He spent the next year raising funds and headed to Irrua, in southern Nigeria, where he built a lab.
There he trained two young people who were fresh out of high school in the basics of microbiology, and conducted Africa’s first-ever home-grown tests for Lassa fever.
“There was nothing, no manpower or equipment,” he recalled.
“There wasn’t even electricity. We had to use a car battery to power the PCR machine!”
Today, Lassa tests are carried out much faster and with less trepidation. The disease, which is endemic to Nigeria, claims between 100 and 200 lives each year.
Bolstered by this experience, Happi founded ACEGID, which became a crucible of learning about African microbes — he recently discovered the Ekpoma 1 and Ekpoma 2 viruses, among hundreds of viral strains that inhabit tropical forests in West Africa.
Despite these successes, the obstacles to setting down a solid foundation for African research are many.
Many scientists, doctors and health workers are lured abroad by the offer of higher pay and better working conditions.
“Young African students may be educated in the best universities of the world, but if there is no structure to welcome them in Africa once they have graduated, it’s no good,” Happi said.
– ‘Make an impact’ –
Idowu Olawoye, 27, studied molecular biology and computer science in England before returning home in 2016.
He insisted that it was no problem for him to work in Ede, a small town that lies more than six hours by road from Lagos, Nigeria’s vibrant economic hub.
“I really want to make an impact in my country,” he said.
His role is to sift through genetic changes in a coronavirus sample that, when compared with other samples, show how the pathogen has spread.
“Look, here you can see on this graph… It’s like you are reading its passport,” he said.
His colleague, Jessica Uwamibe, 29, a doctorate in molecular biology, has been working on the final touches to the COVID-19 test, and is now researching a vaccine based on the genetic profile of the virus found among Nigerian patients.
“Here we have the diseases — and now we have the knowledge and the facilities,” Uwamibe said. “Where else would I go?”
Molecular biologist Christian Happi, head of the ACEGID genomics lab, holds a thermal cycler, which amplifies genetic segments of the virus.
Molecular biologist Iyanuoluwa Fred retrieves a COVID-19 sample from a freezer for analysis
Laboratory manager Philomena Eromon, right, joins molecular biologists to analyse coronavirus samples