World Bank funded Uganda’s Africa Center of Excellence (ACE) PHARMBIOTRAC on the frontline of COVID-19 response

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Composing the ingredients for the PharmSan Hand Sanitizer Gel using a motorized stirrer at controllable speed
Left: Composing the ingredients for the PharmSan Hand Sanitizer Gel using a motorized stirrer at controllable speed; Center: Packed products ready for the market; Right: PharmSan sanitizer on the shelf at Fresca Supermarket, one of the largest supermarkets in Mbarara.

On March 30, one week after the first coronavirus (COVID-19) case was confirmed in Uganda, the country of 42.86 million people went into a lockdown. As of June 9, the number of infected people has increased to 657 with 118 recovered and no deaths so far. Much like other countries around the globe, Uganda has also instituted various efforts to minimize the social and economic impacts of the pandemic. Uganda’s National Security Council has set up an Inter-Agency Joint Task Force (JTF) at national and regional levels to support the Ministry of Health (MOH). Similarly, the Ministry of Science Technology and Innovation (MoSTI) has established a research technology and innovation task team to deliberate on appropriate scientific research, technologies and innovations to combat the virus.

Supporting the country’s efforts, the World Bank-funded Africa Center of Excellence (ACE) PHARMBIOTRAC (Pharm-Biotechnology and Traditional Medicine) has been instrumental in providing their expertise to the government by being an integral part of the scientific task force.  

PHARMBIOTRAC  was established in 2017 at the Mbarara University of Science & Technology (MUST) to address the challenges of low life expectancy and productivity due to communicable and non-communicable diseases, through “building a critical mass of specialized and skilled human resource that can advance traditional medicine and Pharm-Biotechnology for socio-economic development of Africa”.

Following its vision, faced with the existing pandemic, the center has sprang into action to help the local community respond to COVID-19. The center leader, Dr. Casim Umba Tolo runs a new project, PharmSan Innovations focused on manufacturing of quality hand sanitizers. With the COVID-19 crisis, a team was assembled at PHARMBIOTRAC in late March to formalize PharmSan and fast-track the production of hand sanitizers. With increasing demand and growing prices, there was an urgent need for the center to develop a product that followed World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines and was also affordable for the local population. Following in-depth review of existing literature, trial formulations and critical quality control measures, the team was able to produce the optimum formula that is in accordance with the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS). 

After jumping through legal and marketing hoops with support from center’s Chair for Innovation & Business Management, Eng. Anke Weisheit, the hand sanitizers were in supermarkets and pharmacies in Mbarara town starting in March, being sold at much lower prices than its counterparts. It has been well received and accepted by the community. The center has also donated sanitizers to security staff at MUST, Police force in Mbarara, and staff at Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital. From production to market, the entire process takes about 2 weeks, and the team is now working rigorously towards optimizing the process further to enhance the quality and quantity while maintaining the low price.

In the long-term, the goal of this initiative is to continue providing inexpensive and high-quality hand sanitizers to the local population, which are usually in short supply. Being a university project, the overall legal entity is MUST with the ACE being the biggest stakeholder in this innovation. To meet regulatory requirements of UNBS, standards for production of sanitizers has already been purchased and it will be followed by an audit by UNBS before registration and certification of the products. Following this, each product will be produced with highest quality using a similar protocol. The ACE is already discussing opportunities to form a legal company with regulatory bodies and ACE management. A perfect example of spin off from science to practice, and income generation!

The pandemic has offered an opportunity to build experience in emergency response and to innovate using minimal resources. The team at PHARMBIOTRAC has been extremely innovative in finding ways through unique non institutional resource pooling like private funds and fundraising campaigns. Even though this project was not planned within existing budgets, they are extremely important in responding to this pandemic and in the long run, contributing to increasing industrial development, job creation and economic growth for Uganda and the region. 

The Eastern and Southern Africa Higher Education Centers of Excellence Project (ACE II) is an innovative regional higher education operation targeting 8 countries Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia.  The Project aims at strengthening the capacity of higher education institutions to deliver quality post-graduate education and collaborative research. With a competitive and transparent process involving independent evaluation of international experts, 24 centers in 5 regional priority cluster areas of industry, agriculture, health, education and applied statistics have been selected from the 8 participating countries.  The ACE II is funded by a US$148 million International Development Association (IDA) credit from the World Bank targeting the 24 Centers of Excellence. The ACEII Project is being coordinated and managed by a regional facilitation unit (RFU), the Inter-University Council of East Africa (IUCEA), under a Regional Steering Committee which comprises of heads of higher education of the ministries of education. Each ACEII center is headed by a center leader and staffed with key personnel necessary for project implementation.


Roberta Malee Bassett

Global Lead for Tertiary Education and Senior Education Specialist

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