25.01.2021 – 07.00 – The race for anti-Covid vaccines by industrialised countries has once again highlighted the lack of international coordination, with the WHO acting impotently.
However, a “virtuous” example of cooperation in favour of poor countries comes from Trieste, with the launch of a five-year project involving the UN Technology Bank for the least developed countries and our scientific bodies TWAS and ICGEB.
The aim is to promote scientific development in countries with the lowest socio-economic indicators with a view to generating a concrete economic revival that will reduce social inequalities.
And Covid remains a key player in this, as it is the first collaboration in this field focusing on biotechnology and sustainable development (Science for Development).
Another innovation that makes its debut is the choice of three programmes – South-North, South-South, North-South – which reverses the top-down approach of this type of programme.
In fact, there will be the possibility for researchers in poor countries to have scientific training in ICGEB centres in India and South Africa, and for the Trieste professors themselves to hold workshops directly in these countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.
In more detail, the programme involves the collaboration of the UN Technology Bank for Least Developed Countries (UNTBLDC), the World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) and the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB).
The programme agreement, whose acronym is PACTs (ProgrAmme of CollaboraTions with LDCs), will offer scientists from the 46 “countries with low socio-economic and scientific development (LDCs, https://www.un.org/ohrlls/content/profiles-ldcs)” the opportunity to undertake training stays of up to six months at ICGEB’s laboratories in Trieste, New Delhi in India or Cape Town in South Africa.
The selected scientists – at the start of their careers and aged up to 45 – will work on projects in biomedicine, biotechnology and agriculture.
There are skills and know-how that can only be achieved through the supervision of experienced scientists, within an international network of collaborations that can offer long-term support and cooperation.
PACTs will run for five years: in the first three years, participants will be selected and funding allocated; in the final two years, projects will be monitored and evaluated.
At this stage, researchers will be able to apply to the ICGEB for an Early Return Career Grant to fund research once they return home.
PACTs’ funding modality, the UN-UN Interagency Agreement, is noteworthy, as it reduces management costs considerably compared to other similar initiatives.
While the South-North programme will see the “prize-winning” researchers come to Trieste for training in the ICGEB laboratories, and the South-South programme will involve the branch offices in Cape Town and New Delhi, the North-South programme will make it possible to send qualified personnel from Trieste to developing countries.
In this case, the workshops will focus on policy and regulatory capacities in the biotechnology sector.
Executive Director Romain Murenzi noted, in response to a question from Trieste News on what the concrete benefits will be for the Global South, that this programme is the first of many to come.
The merit lies in the systematisation of a precise regulatory framework for this kind of international collaboration.
In other words, the foundations have been laid for future exchanges of researchers and expertise, which it is hoped will expand beyond the 40 members admitted so far.
It is undoubtedly significant that this has been achieved in Trieste – a city that confirms itself as ‘international’ – and in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
While in previous world pandemics the disease had always raged in South-East Asia or Africa, this time the virus is to all intents and purposes ‘universal’; there is no longer a North or South of the world for Covid and this opens up encouraging paradigm shifts, especially considering the evident inability of the West to bring the Coronavirus under control.
The three PACTS programmes in this respect are a good example of a future where it is not just researchers from the global South who come to Europe, but Europeans themselves who go to developing countries, to their mutual benefit.
“We are excited about the collaboration with UNTBLDC and TWAS: we strongly believe in the synergies we will be able to create, as well as in this project, designed to build scientific capacity in the field of biotechnology in LDC countries,” commented Lawrence Banks director general of ICGEB.
“The collaboration between our three institutes is a guarantee that the benefits of modern biotechnology will be able to reach the very countries where such technologies are needed, directly contributing to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.”
Joshua Setipa, Managing Director of UNTB, noted that if there is anything that the previous 12 months have shown, it is the importance of international collaborations to address crises and foster shared growth.
Fabrizio Nicoletti, Director General of Innovation and Research, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also spoke on behalf of Italy, stressing that the Covid-19 has exacerbated inequalities that already existed both internally in individual countries and globally; and in this field Italy wants to help disadvantaged countries grow, with special reference to sub-Saharan Africa.
There was also a recorded speech by Massimiliano Fedriga President of Friuli Venezia Giulia, who remarked how his administration has always aimed to promote scientific initiatives at an international level, starting with the 2018 ICGEB agreement.
The FVG-ICGEB alliance had made it possible “to implement strategies for the identification of investments in Friuli Venezia Giulia” with special reference to “biomedical and pharmaceutical innovation and European research platform projects in the field of life sciences”.
These were not “abstract” investments, because it was precisely these programmes that demonstrated their “strategic nature” during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Friuli Venezia Giulia, for example, provided practical assistance to three Serbian hospitals through the ‘Lasernet’ project, in the field of chemo- and radiotherapy treatments, supplying three devices and appropriate specialist training.
And now this multinational collaboration continues in Moldova, with a Covid-19 surveillance programme aimed at supporting the small Eastern European country, shaken by economic, migration (consider the Moldovan diaspora in Italy) and now even health crises.
Closing the conference, Murenzi stressed that the programme is also in line with the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the need to share big data and information technology. It is not just ‘science’, but ‘science for development’.
A commitment, Murenzi stressed, that sees Italy playing a major role, together with China, Russia and Turkey.