Grand Challenges is a family of initiatives fostering innovation to solve key global health and development problems. Each initiative is an experiment in the use of challenges to focus innovation on making an impact. Individual challenges address some of the same problems, but from differing perspectives.
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Sanjeev Kumar of The Goat Trust in India will develop animated mobile applications that provide information on improving productivity, veterinary and financial services, and markets for women goat herders in the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to increase their income. These women work in remote regions with limited support, and many are illiterate. They will develop simple applications with health, nutrition, animal husbandry, a marketplace, and management components, and integrate value-chain players such as products and services suppliers. In health, they will develop a decision support tool to help farmers identify diseases using 141 symptoms and to select the most suitable treatment in consultation with vets. For the marketplace, farmers will be able to order quality products and pay directly. There will also be a web-based platform for goat sales. They will develop the applications in consultation with farmers and other stakeholders, and perform pilot testing.
Esther Muiruri of Equity Group Foundation in Kenya will expand their Equity Online-Agriculture platform to provide information on agricultural best practices, including smart-farming innovations, as well as access to financing and markets to initially 200,000, and subsequently up to two million, small-scale farmers in Kenya to improve their productivity and income. They will build the platform to digitally disseminate agricultural information such as soil testing and pest and disease control, which will improve timely planting and crop and livestock management. They will also build in training in financial literacy targeted towards women, who make up the majority of agricultural workers, and access to financial support and tailored insurance products by implementing e-vouchers and loans, digital wallets and a credit scoring system. Market information and direct contacts with potential buyers will also be provided through an online platform.
Shafiq-ul Islam of ACME AI in Bangladesh will produce a smartphone-based system that uses computer vision and machine learning to accurately estimate the weight of cows and goats to help smallholder livestock farmers in rural Bangladesh maximize productivity and profits. Accurately determining livestock weight is challenging for these farmers but critical for determining the right amounts of food and medicines. They will develop a machine learning model and mobile application that uses the smartphone’s camera to process distance, height, and depth information and calculate the weight of the animal to within >90% accuracy. They will test three different business cases, including combining the computer vision-based weighing system with products and service providers, and evaluate the impact on food and medicine purchases, and animal growth and quality, which are directly linked with income.
Mukhlid Yousif of Wits Health Consortium in South Africa will sequence SARS-CoV-2 in sewage samples collected periodically from 40 wastewater treatment facilities across South Africa for the early detection of potentially dangerous variants to inform public health policies. Genome sequencing using sewage samples can monitor the molecular epidemiology and diversity of circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants, and also identify new variants even before they can be detected in the clinic. They will collect a total of 528 wastewater samples over a twelve-month period and process them for sequencing to identify novel mutations or mutations that are unique to variants-of-concern, especially those not yet reported in Africa. They will also compare these data with sequences of SARS-CoV-2 variants from local COVID-19 patients to support interpretation of wastewater sequencing results. Results will be immediately published online and communicated to provincial and national COVID incident management teams.
Francine Ntoumi of the Fondation Congolaise pour la Recherche Medicale in the Republic of Congo will set-up a national SARS-CoV-2 genomic surveillance system by increasing sequencing capacity to monitor viral variants-of-concern and determine the impact of vaccines on disease transmission to inform public health decisions. They will perform a cohort study by collecting oropharyngeal samples from patients at COVID-19 testing centers in the two largest cities, which account for 80% of the country’s new infections, and sequence around 60 SARS-CoV-2-positive samples per month to determine the prevalence of variants. These will be combined with existing COVID-19 epidemiological and clinical data to determine the virulence, transmissibility, and symptoms associated with new and existing viral variants-of-concern. They will also analyze blood samples from vaccinated and unvaccinated COVID-19 patients to evaluate their immune responses and combine these with socio-demographic and clinical data to determine vaccine effectiveness.
Jesse Gitaka of Mount Kenya University in Kenya will develop a diagnostic device for iron deficiency anemia that is suitable for resource-limited settings. Iron deficiency anemia can cause maternal death, prematurity and stunting. Current diagnostic tests require expensive equipment or are not specific enough to distinguish between the different causes of anemia. They will develop a device that detects the low levels of hemoglobin found in immature red blood cells, called reticulocytes. The device will use magnetic beads and microfluidics to physically separate reticulocytes from whole blood, and then absorbance to measure the red color of hemoglobin and thereby determine levels. They will use samples from healthy donors to develop algorithms that can calculate the amount of hemoglobin per reticulocyte to provide an accurate diagnosis.
Richard Njouom from the Centre Pasteur du Cameroun in Cameroon will establish a genomic surveillance network across the country to routinely track circulating SARS CoV-2 strains and identify novel variants for informing health authorities. They will use an existing national network of six COVID-19 molecular testing laboratories for collecting samples. Around 1,200 samples will be screened using a commercial SARS-CoV-2 mutation panel over the course of 12 months to identify existing viral variants-of-concern and variants-of-interest. They will also set up a sequencing platform to sequence the spike protein of the virus to identify new variants, as well as for generating 240 whole SARS CoV-2 genome sequences to monitor viral evolution and identify markers of disease severity or increased transmissibility. Policy briefs will be used to inform the health authorities of circulating variants.
Pontiano Kaleebu of the Uganda Virus Research Institute in Uganda will expand their genome surveillance platform to monitor the circulation of SARS-CoV-2 variants in Uganda to help inform timely public health decisions and the development of diagnostics and vaccines. They will obtain geographically-representative COVID-19 patient samples for genomic sequencing, as well as samples from strategic sites including points of entry, where several variants have emerged. They are also collecting blood samples and nasopharyngeal swabs from patients, some of whom have been vaccinated, to determine their ability to neutralize viral variants and to produce monoclonal antibodies for potential use as diagnostics or for vaccine design. The methods and capacity established during this project will also be used for immunological surveillance of other infectious diseases.
Fitsum Girma Tadesse of the Armauer Hansen Research Institute in Ethiopia will establish the Ethiopian Malaria Genomic Epidemiology Network (EMAGEN) by bringing together key public health, biomedical, and biotechnology institutions in Ethiopia to build malaria molecular surveillance capacity and renew elimination efforts. Eliminating malaria requires an urgent shift to more quantitative methods that can more accurately and rapidly track disease transmission and drug resistance, and better target interventions. They will develop a framework for building capacity and integrating it into the national malaria control and elimination strategy, produce next generation sequencing and bioinformatics protocols that will be used to monitor anti-malaria drug resistance, and train personnel in genomics and bioinformatics. They will also develop a simple, interactive web interface to effectively communicate results to diverse stakeholders.
Christian Happi of Redeemer's University in Nigeria will assess the impact and risks of emerging SARS-CoV-2 virus variants in Africa, which are threatening vaccination efforts. They will produce viral pseudotypes using genomic sequences of around ten SARS-CoV-2 variants-of-concern that are dominant in Africa. These pseudotypes will be used in high-throughput neutralization assays with Vero cells in the presence of serum samples taken from over 400 vaccinated or previously-infected Nigerians, which contain many different types of antibodies, to evaluate their ability to neutralize the viral variants. This will reveal how well protected the population is against viral variants, and inform vaccine and immunization strategies. The serum samples that strongly protect against a range of SARS-CoV-2 variants will be subjected to single-cell immunoglobulin gene sequencing to identify neutralizing monoclonal antibodies for designing more effective vaccines.