How One Scientist Is Tackling Biosecurity in West Africa

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How One Scientist Is Tackling Biosecurity in West Africa

On March 13, 2016, terrorists opened fire on a beach located near Grand Bassam in the Ivory Coast. The incident shocked the world and reminded us that attacks such as these can happen anywhere. As Dr. Mahama Toure watched the news flooding out of his country, he knew that the attack could have been deadlier. In a region where biosecurity is an esoteric concept, the risk of harmful biological agents being utilized in a terrorist attack is not farfetched.

Training participants in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast

Deadly diseases such as Ebola, Marburg virus, and Lassa fever - to name a few – are all located on the African continent, as well as laboratories that are used to study how to cure and treat them. As scientists and researchers across Africa work to rid the continent of these diseases, they are faced with serious challenges to biosecurity. Old equipment, outdated procedures, and a general lack of biosecurity knowledge not only hampers progress that could be made battling these ailments, but also increases the risk of biological materials and pathogens falling into the wrong hands. It is this scenario that has motivated Dr. Toure, a geneticist by training, to dedicate the last several years of his career to improving biosecurity in West Africa.

As president of the Association for Biosecurity in Côte d’Ivoire (ABCI), Dr. Toure has aggressively confronted issues of biosecurity in the region since the organization’s founding in 2011 - no easy task for a country with little or no knowledge of the concept. “This has been one of the biggest obstacles in the Ivory Coast,” says Dr. Toure. “When you ask people about biosecurity, nobody knows how to answer. They simply don’t know what it is.”

Dr. Toure (fourth from left) with biosecurity trainees from Bouake, Ivory Coast

Working with meagre funds collected through the ABCI’s $20 USD membership fee, Dr. Toure began work educating laboratory technicians, hospital staff, and first responders within the Ivory Coast on issues relating to biosecurity. However, as one might expect, simply talking about biosecurity wasn’t enough to ensure it. “We ought to train people on any eventual use of biological material to harm in a terrorist attack and train people through scenarios for examples on how to face this threat by prevention or after it happens,” says Mahama. What the Ivory Coast needed was practical training, and Dr. Toure was determined to deliver it.

In 2013, as Dr. Toure sought to grow his work and incorporate training workshops around the Ivory Coast, he was faced with a serious challenge: funding. While the need for biosecurity training increased in the Ivory Coast, the funds did not. Disheartened, though far from defeated, Dr. Toure turned to CRDF Global’s Biosecurity Management Enhancement Grant Program (BMEG).

The BMEG program is designed to award grants to individuals who can make a big impact in reducing biorisk in their facilities, institutions, and home countries. Dr. Toure applied for a grant through the 2013 Sub-Saharan African competition of the BMEG program and was competitively selected to receive a grant to expand his work in biosecurity. The BMEG program is supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Biosecurity Engagement Program, whose mission is to increase biosafety and biosecurity through technical consultations, risk assessments, and training courses, and build the human capacity and internal expertise to create a sustainable culture of laboratory biorisk management.

Using his grant, Dr. Toure was finally able to host practical training workshops in four cities across the Ivory Coast for medical doctors, nurses, biological researchers, firemen, UN police officers military personnel, and members of government. During the course of his trainings he offered training on biocontainment and laboratory design, the proper use of personal protective equipment, biological decontamination and sterilization, and the safe transport of infectious substances and biological materials. As a result of the trainings, Dr. Toure has been able to strengthen biosecurity in the Ivory Coast and turn the government’s attention to the importance of this issue.

Dr. Toure's biosecurity trainings follow a multisector approach. They include police and military personnel as well as scientists and hospital staff.

Thanks to Dr. Toure’s work over the last five years, the Ivory Coast now has a solid foundation on which it can build a resilient culture of biosecurity. In fact, the success of the trainings has led to an opportunity for Dr. Toure and the ABCI to expand the organization’s mandate to the rest of West Africa, where an uptick in terrorist violence combined with the growing threat of Ebola led to increased concerns about bioterror. As biothreats continue to emerge around the world, the work of people like Dr. Toure will only become more important.

As Dr. Toure says, “There is no need to wait for disease or terrorist threat to come. We need – must – prevent them.”